Friday, May 25, 2012

Vegetarian fried rice, spring style

I've never been to China, but I've always been fascinated with the variations in flavors and quality at Chinese food restaurants and take-out places. Which one is authentic, I wondered. Now I know that Northerners and Southerners in China eat different things and have different tastes. While in the South the diet is rice-based and peppered with tropical fruit and vegetables, in the North it is wheat-based. Easterners enjoy fish and seafood, while Westerners like rich flavors and hot chilies. And yet, if I were faced with a Chinese dish I'm quite sure I wouldn't be able to tell what cuisine the cook is practicing.

Even in little Macon, it was easy to note a difference between an obscure take-out place like Ming's and a large chain like New China Buffet. I always preferred the former because I found it, intuitively, more authentic, even though the latter had more variety to offer. I remember the house fried rice from Ming's as a delicious treat that rewarded us after arduous exams or long hours of student work, in the library or whatever place they'd assigned us to expiate our tuition costs. They were hard times, and we often sought solace in food. Who could blame us?

I first started stir-frying after a meal at Genghis Grill in Albuquerque. This is an unusual sort of restaurant where you select your ingredients, pile them up in a bowl, wait in a long line and finally when your turn comes the chef cooks your selected meal right in front of you, with your sauce of choice. My meal was delicious, and I wasn't sure whether it was my merit or the chef's. But it was so simple and tasty that it won me over.

The stir-fry was invented out of necessity, to conserve cooking fuel which was scarce during the Tang Dynasty in China. Today our scarcity is quite different - it's not cooking fuel, but time. Our lives are so busy that we hardly remember to eat, let alone prepare our own meals. It's much easier to grab a burrito at a drive-through on your way somewhere. Quicker, agreed. But nutritious? I don't know. For all you busy people, here is a quick recipe that I created inspired by the colors of spring and, well, the contents of my fridge. This makes four generous bowls of fried rice and it keeps very well, so you can double the recipe and make more to last you longer.

1 1/2 cups jasmine or Basmati brown rice, cooked (I use 1 part rice per 2 1/2 parts water)
1/2 package (8 oz) frozen peas, cooked
1/2 package green beans (8 oz), cooked
1 large red pepper, finely chopped
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 eggs
2 Tbsp soy sauce (organic is better!)
2 Tbsp sesame seeds (optional)
olive oil

First, cook the eggs scrambled in a non-stick pan. Meanwhile, set a wok (or a large frying pan) on medium heat and generously coat the bottom with olive oil. 
When the eggs are done, set them to the side. Wait until the wok is hot (2 minutes or so) and throw in the onions and garlic. Saute stirring constantly for 2 minutes or until transparent. 
Throw in red pepper and sesame seeds and cook for another minute, stirring constantly. Throw in the cooked rice, peas and green beans and stir together for another minute. Add the cooked eggs and mix everything together over medium heat for 3 minutes. 
Remove from heat, add soy sauce and mix.

By the way:
Since this is not a spicy dish, it will go well with a dry red wine, medium-bodied as to not steal the show. I had a glass of Slow Paseo, a Tempranillo blend from Trader Joe's.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Two soups for studying

When studying for an exam, there's no better meal to have than soup. Soup is fitting to have in many time-pressing situations, but most of all on those occasions when you need to keep working and focused. It's not pretentious, it's easy to make and it will keep in the fridge for quite a while. If you are like me, and dread the disruption from studying that meals are, then you should seriously consider getting a cookbook for soups. I found such a gem at Barnes & Noble, on sale, and not being a fan of cookbooks at the time I quickly dismissed it. But curiosity pressed, and leafing through the book I discovered the recipes to be rather simple and the ingredients basic. So I bought it.

Ever since, I have been making soup as if to feed a restaurant. One of the things I love about soups is experimenting with spices. Being creative is great too and it can lead to glorious successes - but it can also lead to miserable failures. Following recipes, on the other hand, you learn about flavors and how spices work together. This is especially useful if you are a beginner and don't yet have enough experience cooking to have a knack about what goes with what. Also, following a recipe prevents you from committing serious catastrophes with very potent spices (such as the episode in which my otherwise trustworthy aide doctored an entire batch of black bean soup with two tablespoons of cayenne pepper - more on that in another entry).

For last week, I decided to make two very different soups, back to back. An hour and a half of cooking took care of an entire week's worth of lunches. I love that sort of project where I'm being very productive in a short amount of time. For the first soup, I thought about adding some meat for protein, but I also wanted it to be chunky and rich in vegetables. Turkey soup! I chose a slow cooker recipe because really, it's the easiest way to cook anything - just throw everything in there and leave for the day. By the time you get home from work, you have dinner ready. If you don't have a slow cooker, you can still make this by boiling everything together on low heat until the vegetables are soft but not mushy.

The idea for the second soup arose from my memories of Santa Fe at sunset, of New Mexican food and good company, of delicious vibrant green avocados in the summer. This is a refreshing soup made with fresh tomatoes and topped with cheese and avocados. If I'd grown up in Mexico (which, too often in my dreams, I have) this is what grandma would be cooking in her summer kitchen while the family would be sitting on the veranda, toasting apple cider and gulping down fresh bread with butter.

Santa Fe Tomato Chowder

1 Tbsp butter
5 cloves garlic, minced
4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 can (16 oz) tomato sauce
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 ripe avocado, squared and scooped out
1 cup shredded goat cheddar cheese

Melt butter in large saucepan. Saute garlic for 1 minute. Add tomatoes and cook 5 minutes. Stir in 1 cup water, tomato sauce, corn, cilantro, cayenne pepper and chili powder.
Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Spoon soup into serving bowls. Top with shredded cheese and avocado pieces.
Makes 4 servings.

Recipe for Santa Fe Tomato Chowder adapted from Frank's RedHot.
Recipe for Simple Turkey Soup from The Soup Bible.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A secret ingredient for delicious chicken thighs

The other day I found a really good deal on chicken at the store. The meat aisle is not the place where you'd usually find me in a grocery store, but I just happened there on accident and saw this large package of organic chicken thighs for a good price. What the hell, I could use a little more protein in my diet, I thought. Admittedly, I made this decision fully mindful that cooking meat in not exactly my forte. I simply don't know how to go about it. I think of meat as a necessary evil, because despite the ethical dilemmas about eating animals that we otherwise claim to love, it's challenging to put together a wholesome diet without meat. Especially if you're training.

So I reluctantly decided I was going to cook this thing. Now, I don't have a lot of memories of cooking happening in our household as I was growing up. Not many recipes I can summon now to guide me. In fact, there are only three culinary experiences I remember. I have vague memories of my mother grilling mushrooms one day when I was too young to speak. This might have not even really happened. The other thing I remember my mother making for me is strawberry mousse, which was and still is my favorite dessert. So really, my mother's cooking was infrequent when I was growing up and it's only now, in her middle age, that she's grown quite fond of cooking and developed a fascination for exotic Asian foods. But there is one more memory I have from my early years gravitating around my mother in the kitchen, and it's the most important one. The principle that helped my mother get away with so little actual cooking and still feed me every day is this: garlic makes everything taste good.

I took this in mind as I contemplated the mound of meat thawing in the fridge. By the time the chicken was ready to be cooked, I was entirely bereft of enthusiasm and would have paid someone to cook it for me. Lunch time was approaching though and I didn't have much time to whine, so in my predicament I turned to the ingredient I knew makes any food a winner - garlic. You won't need much else to make this. If you have chicken thighs in your fridge and don't quite know how to tackle them, here is a quick and tasty recipe. And really, this turned out so good that I mentally thanked my mother and her culinary wisdom. Here is what you need:

4 chicken thighs
5-6 garlic cloves (or more, you can never have too much garlic!), halved if they are large
salt and pepper, to taste
olive oil

If your meat has a lot of fat, remove as much of it as possible. Then sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides and rub it gently into the meat. Place the chicken in a pan and place the garlic around or into the folds of the meat. If your chicken has the skin on, put the garlic between the skin and the meat. Drizzle with olive oil. 

Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. Halfway through, flip the meat so that it gets a nice golden color on both sides. By the way - this goes very well with mashed potatoes and green beans. 

I've made you hungry, haven't I?