Sunday, April 27, 2008

Zha jiang mian (Meat Sauce Noodles)

I don't think I could function without noodles in my life. They're extraordinarily versatile, comforting and satisfying all at once and have made my life a far happier place since I was very little. I was always particularly fond of the northern Chinese noodle dish, zha jiang mian, which is a sort of Chinese spaghetti bolognase (strangely, I've never been a huge fan of actual spaghetti bolognase). The Chinese dish is a mixture of fermented soybean paste and ground pork served over a bowl of warm, chewy, fat white noodles that always seemed to perfectly trap all the sauce. It was my love of this dish that got me to expert level at chopsticks, I was so desperate to eat the noodles.

This all started because I was wandering down the aisles of the Chinese supermarket when I saw the can with the fermented bean paste my mom always liked using for these noodles from when I was little - talk about deep rooted visual memory. I decided to take it home and give it a whirl, Jason's increasingly comfortable eating the weird Chinese food things I whip up, so worse case scenario, he chokes down one meal.

I'm pretty sure every family has a variation on this dish, but this is how I ate it growing up, so it's what I think it should be, obviously, feel free to play with it. The can of bean paste I used was INCREDIBLY salty in the end (I used to whole can), and it was only slightly buffered by the noodles and fresh crunchy green. Jason would have liked more sauce to mix with the noodles, but overall it was a strong dish. I just have to figure out how to lower the salt levels on this thing!

Zha jiang mian

1 tsp cooking oil
1/2 lb ground pork
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 can Szechuan Hot Bean Sauce*
1/4 cup frozen peas and carrots mix
1/4 cup 1/4" cubed firm tofu
2 Tbsp water
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp sriracha
salt (you won't need it) and pepper to taste
1/8 cup julienne celery, scallions and/or cucumbers
1 package noodles, preferably wide, flour noodles

Heat cooking oil over high heat in a medium pan/wok until shimmering. Add pork and stir-fry into smaller pieces until nicely browned. Add garlic and stir-fry again for 30 seconds. Remove meat and garlic from wok, set aside.

Using the same wok/pan, empty entire can of bean sauce over medium-high and saute for a minute. Return meat to wok and stir-fry to cover with the sauce. Add tofu cubes and frozen peas and carrots to the wok and stir-fry until everything is well-coated. Add water, sugar, salt (probably not), pepper, and sriracha, lower heat and simmer for five minutes.

Top warm, freshly cooked plain white noodles with meat sauce, fresh celery, scallions and cucumbers. Serve immediately.

*This is the can of bean sauce that I used and even though it said hot, I had my doubts, which is why I added in the sriracha. I have a spicy food problem, I'm not ashamed to admit. If anyone finds a better way to cut the salt, let me know!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Banana Tarte Tatin

I love tart tatin something wrong. It's not hard to understand why, after all, puff paste, fruit and caramelized sugars are the building blocks of deliciousness.

The tart tatin recipe that I (very begrudgingly) follow is from the pastry chef instructor that came in to teach us last semester. She wasn't a bad chef, but she was always harried, rushed and uninterested in us -- it was clear she was always in a rush to get out the door and beat traffic. Excuse us for intruding on your otherwise busy life, madam! And after her outburst towards me at the end of chocolate day, I'm forced to say she wasn't much of a teacher. (Clearly, allow for a lot of bias here.)

On the day we made tarte tatin in class, I worked with Potter since we'd already worked together to make our puff paste from scratch. Making it was incredibly time-consuming, and if I was making it at home, it would have cost me a pretty penny as well. There's a lot of butter in a puff paste. But we were glad we'd made it because everyone should taste, smell and touch real uncooked puff just once in their lives. It's like velvet made from butter, it's extraordinary.

Anyway, Potter chose to make his tart tatin with bananas while I kept traditional with apples. I loved mine, but I really loved his. Bananas are so perfect for this, it's like a bananas foster without the booze (although, you could take a snifter of it on the side if you wanted). Besides, there was a lot less prep work needed in the bananas since peeling apples isn't quite as easy.

This dessert has quickly become one of our favourites at home. Jason loves sugar, fat and bananas and I love that I can make a piping hot dessert in 30 minutes that looks amazing and isn't stuffed with scary things I can't pronounce. I don't think it keeps well, unfortunately, because the crust gets soggy from the caramel, but I'm not sure -- it's never been in our house long enough to know.

Banana Tart Tatin
(Adapted from Cindy Salvato)
Cindy also mentioned that you could used apples, pears, mangoes and pineapples for this -- basically anything that is rather high in pectin.

2 Tbsp soften unsalted butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 ripe (or overripe) bananas
1 8-inch circle of puff pastry*

Preheat the oven to 425F. In an eight inch Teflon coated sauce pan (that's safe to put in the oven - no plastic handles here kids!), spread the softened butter around the bottom. It's perfectly fine to leave large clumps of butter, it will melt anyway. Sprinkle the sugar over the butter.

Take the peeled bananas and arrange them in the pan so they all fit.** Over medium-high heat, cook the sugar, butter and bananas until the sugar begins to caramelize into a dark brown -- DON'T SHAKE THE PAN! It'll disrupt how the bananas were arranged.

When the sugar has become (mostly) dark brown, remove the pan from the heat and lay the puff pastry over the top of the bananas. Immediately place the entire pan into a 400F oven and bake until the lightest color on the puff is golden brown.

Once done, remove from the oven and invert it immediately onto a serving plate. Serve (and be careful, it's very hot).

*I made my own puff pastry for this, but you can just as easily by the pre-made kind from the supermarket - no judgment! I don't even use the traditional recipe for the puff, mine's a sort of fake puff.
**Suggestion: place two full bananas to create a 'circle' on the outside of the bottom, then break the third banana in half and copy the pattern in the center. (As shown in the photo.)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Jan Can Too

I spent a great afternoon in Rhode Island this weekend watching Chef Martin Yan do a cooking demo at Johnson & Wales University. I've never tried anything of his, but I've watched his shows for years and years and was definitely looking forward to watching him in person and hearing his distinctive accent live.

He touched on a few topics of Chinese cuisine that I'd always wanted to learn more about: regional cuisine, international influences and transfers of the food into other countries. We also learnt a little more about his background and experiences growing up and learning how to cook -- I never knew he received a masters in food science from UC Davis. Its something I've certainly had an interest in learning more about, I only wish we had a class on that topic in this gastronomy program. I'll look into whether they offer the course online...

Anyway, he made a few dishes: duck and mushroom lettuce cups, edamame fried rice with seaweed, and sweet and sour fried fish (all from his cookbook, Martin Yan Quick and Easy). Jason thought the duck and mushroom lettuce cups looked great, if not a little too sauced, but I wasn't so convinced. We both agreed that the fried rice wasn't nearly as clean and comfortable looking as my version (obviously, you have to allow for some bias in that statement), but we liked certain touches, like the shredded seaweed on top. The way it wilted onto the hot rice made it look so good (probably much better than it really was, but that's ok).

We both agreed that the fish looked awesome (more the fish, less the sauce) and the technique he demonstrated was very cool: after dusting the cleaned and gutted fish with flour, he took a wide ladle and spread the fish over it lowering the front of the fish into the hot oil to help it take the shape, then using a separate ladle to pour hot oil over the fish.

In the end, the fish stood up on it's 'belly' and had the same shape it would have had in its natural shape. Very, very cool. I would love to try this at home and will the moment I have something larger than a toy stove in a crappy rental unit in Brighton.

He was very funny and a super nice guy (Jason thought he was a little rude to me until I mentioned growing up in Hong Kong and getting my masters at BU, but I call it being Chinese) and I have a lot of respect for how hard he must have fought to make a name for himself in this business and stay relevant. He, along with the other members of the 'old guard' are the reason things like the gastronomy program, the Food Network and all my lovely food glossies are ever possible. Is he of the same vein of Craig Clairborne, James Beard and Julia Child? No, but he's been a huge influencer in the second wave of cooks that range from high-end to street food like Jacques Pepin, Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme and Daniel Boulud.

He was quite the jokester while on stage, I was cracking up every time he poked fun at Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray, particularly when he explained why he'd never be anything but a guest judge on Iron Chef America, "I don't want to embarrass Bobby Flay." Mostly though he said, "I don't need to prove anything in my career. If I win, it doesn't make me a better chef. If I lose, then I won't be able to sleep for three days!"

Take that BBQ-boy!

He was pushing his new culinary center in Shenzhen, southern China near Hong Kong, like a crack dealer, but I'm totally down to go. I'd love nothing more than to gain a deep knowledge of Chinese cuisine and techniques, maybe one day I'll be able to pass along the information as a culinary instructor for Chinese food or a Chinese food social scientist. Either way a few weeks in China, traveling and learning to cook don't sound bad to me at all.