Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Malaysian Market Noodles

Sometimes when I'm in the mood to cook Asian food, I'm really in the mood for noodles. Maybe udon with mushrooms and oyster sauce, a spicy aromatic soup or pad thai. I flip past recipes of baked fish, chopped salads and rice dishes going through the motions. But the whole time I know the only thing that will be truly satisfying is a noodle dish.

This was the situation last weekend, when we decided we hadn't cooked Asian in a while. Mike wanted to do the cooking, and along with Mexican, Asian food has really turned out to be his forté. We wanted to venture beyond pad thai (and I was in the mood for something with more heat), so we settled on this. It's the same idea as pad thai, but more heat than that sweet and sour flavor that characterizes pad thai.

According to Christina Arokiasamy, it's the type of lightning-quick noodle stir fry you would typically find at markets (or maybe food courts) in Kuala Lumpur where she grew up. We adapted her recipe in The Spice Merchant's Daughter, with our own twists like a few handfuls of spinach and a bit of molasses instead of sweet soy sauce, which we couldn't find (Arokiasamy suggested that they have a similar flavor). To make it a substantial meal, we added fresh chorizo in lieu of the Chinese sausage, which is often included in this type of dish.

The result was addictively delicious. I like this dish easily as much as pad thai--and that's saying something! Adding the extra veggies was nice, and I don't think chorizo has ever spoiled a dish. Just get all your ingredients ready first; the cooking is quick. Of course, you can add as much or as little heat as you want. We didn't have any hot fresh chiles, but crushed red pepper did the job nicely.

Malaysian Market Noodles (char kway teow)
Adapted from The Spice Merchant's Daughter by Christina Arokiasamy

Rice noodles are often cooked by soaking in hot water, but I prefer boiling them in salted water just like spaghetti. Cooking time depends on the noodles you're using, but it usually takes about 5 minutes. Taste and cook until al dente.

Serves 3 to 4

8 oz. rice noodles (sometimes called pad thai noodles)
2 fresh chorizo sausages, sliced
1 Tbs. canola oil
2 large shallots, sliced
8 oz. large shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1 Tbs. molasses
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup bean sprouts
2 cups spinach leaves
chopped fresh chives for garnish

Cook rice noodles according to package directions or boil until al dente. Drain, rinse and set aside. Cook chorizo in a large skillet on medium heat. Transfer to a paper towel to drain and leave about 1 tablespoon of fat in the skillet. Add the canola oil and shallots; Cook until soft. Add the shrimp and garlic and cook until shrimp is opaque; season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium low.

Whisk together the soy sauce, molasses and crushed red pepper. Add the noodles and soy mixture and toss well. Add the eggs and toss vigorously with noodles until eggs are cooked, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the beans sprouts and spinach and toss well. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately, garnished with chives.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How to Fix Sunken Cupcakes

How cool is food science?! I was developing a cupcake recipe last week, and encountered that horrible, sunken, crater-like effect. What to do?

I had started with a basic cake recipe and worked from there, but I knew something was off when my first batch sunk. I remembered reading somewhere that the leavening agents (baking soda, baking powder) could be a factor. I turned to Cookwise by Shirley Corriher, that classic resource that demystifies the science behind cooking and baking.

It turns out that there are some very important guidelines when it comes to the amount of leavening in recipes. Each cup of flour in a recipe can handle up to 1 1/4 teaspoons of baking powder OR just 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda (Of course other factors may come into play and some recipes may require a combination of the two.). The presumably reliable recipe I used as a blueprint called for 1/2 tsp. baking powder AND 1/2 teaspoon baking soda with just 1 cup of flour.

I can't really comprehend why it would ever call for so much baking soda. But, it was really fun to do some sleuthing and figure out how to fix my recipe. I ended up omitting the baking soda completely, resulting in perfectly level cupcakes, just like I wanted. I should also not that the one on the left is not as tall as the sunken one because I used less dough--not because it failed rise.

This also brings up another hugely important part of cooking that I love to preach about (so indulge me for a sec). Just because "the recipe says so" doesn't mean it's correct. Even recipes published in books and other reliable sources can have problems. It may be a simple mistake, or it may not have been developed/tested/edited with perfect clarity and/or knowledge. There are differences in equipment and ingredients, even the climate can be a factor. These things happen.

So, if something doesn't seem right in a recipe, absolutely question it! Just use your common sense and do what seems right to you, or compare it to a similar recipe from a source you've had good results with in the past. Okay, I'm done! I just had to share my geeky little science moment...maybe it will help you fix a faulty recipe someday!

One more thing: Corriher just did a follow up to Cookwise that focuses totally on baking! It's called Bakewise, and I'm resolved to buy it after my cupcake experience. If food science makes you giddy, check it out!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cornmeal-Crusted Tilapia

What a week. I've been wanting to post this recipe for days now, but I needed a weekend to finally get to it. I try not to work on weekends unless I absolutely have to. I will, however, do "fun work." I'll develop recipes because my husband is around to taste them (and we do have to eat). Sometimes I catch up on tedious work chores like making invoices and scanning contracts (This does not qualify as fun work--I loathe scanning). And I'll also blog, which happily does fall into the category of fun work.

Naturally, it's fun to tell people about a great recipe. When something is easy, healthy and really good, I can't ask for much more. I've recently come around to the idea of "crusting" things, although the word has kind of an unappealing ring to it. What else would you call it? It's not "breaded," and "coated" isn't evocative enough. "Crusting" on the other hand is rather descriptive and can apply to nuts, seeds, spices, breadcrumbs, cornmeal, anything.

I'd done some nut crusting in recent months, but I hadn't tried anything with cornmeal, an ingredient I always have and love to use in baking. I wanted to do something different with tilapia, as well. It's an inexpensive, readily available and agreeable fish, but it can be disappointing if you don't watch how you cook it. Crusting it in cornmeal and roasting it (and quickly running it under the broiler to get that nice deep browning on the crust) resulted in very moist fish with a crisp, sort-of-like-fried exterior. I know it all sounds basic, but I really like this preparation.

The topping is canned artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes quickly sauteed with some garlic and Limoncello. I really liked using the liqueur here, but since you're probably more likely to have white wine on hand, I wouldn't hesitate to make that substitution. Lastly, don't be intimidated by the crusting process. Yes, you have to get 3 plates/bowls dirty, but it's quick, easy and delivers a very tasty payoff.

Cornmeal-Crusted Tilapia with Lemon Artichoke Topping
As always, use stone ground, whole grain cornmeal. Medium grind provides a nice crunch, but a fine grind would probably be good in its own way. I would imagine that coarse grind would be a little hard on your teeth, but it's up to you. Other veggie toppings would be nice here, by the way--I considered grape tomatoes sauteed with garlic and scallions too.

Serves 2, but you can easily scale up as needed. The amounts of flour, egg and cornmeal you need for crusting are not precise.

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 egg
1/3 cup medium stone ground cornmeal
2 tilapia fillets
1 Tbs. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 artichoke hearts (from a 15-oz. can), drained and quartered
1/4 cup Limoncello or white wine
6 to 8 sun-dried tomatoes, patted dry and sliced
1 to 2 Tbs. lemon juice
Fresh chives or parsley for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 450 and coat a foil-lined baking sheet with cooking spray. Put the flour in a wide, shallow bowl, season liberally with salt and pepper and mix well. Beat egg in another bowl and put cornmeal in a third bowl. Dip a fish fillet in flour and shake off excess. Dip quickly in egg, then in cormeal, turning fillet to coat well; place on baking sheet. Repeat with remaining fish. Bake 10 minutes or until nearly cooked through. Switch on broiler and cook until top crust of fillets is lightly browned and crisp in spots, and fish is cooked through.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook until it begins to color. Add artichokes and stir gently to heat. Add Limoncello and simmer until reduced by about three-quarters. Add sun-dried tomatoes and heat through. Season with a pinch of salt and black pepper. Remove from heat and toss with lemon juice to taste. Serve over fish. Garnish with fresh chives or parsley if desired.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Lentils and More Winter Recipes

In the past hour, the weather has gone from mostly clear and sunny to about as dark and stormy as it's likely to get in Florida--and I love it! I know a lot of you would probably kill for some of my typical Florida weather right now, but one of my favorite things to do is cook a warm, comforting meal with the wind and rain rocking away outside.

I'm about to go do just that, but first I wanted to supply you with a slew of recipes perfect for stormy weather. An essay I wrote on the long history of the lentil was published on NPR.org today, along with three of my original recipes:
  • Wine-Braised Lentils with Mustard-Glazed Salmon
  • Curried Red Lentil Soup with Raita
  • Brown Lentils with Chorizo and Orange Salsa
I hope you'll click over to the story and check them out! Though I cringe when tooting my own horn (I'm literally cringing right now), I also want to invite you to take a look at some recipes stories I have out in a few magazines this month. I wrote about healthy and immune-boosting recipes with citrus in the February issue of Shape (including a dessert that fits into your diet plans for the new year). I developed a handful of Italian recipes for the Jan./Feb. issue of Clean Eating that re-think some favorite dishes in a healthy way. And I came up with creative ways to eat in-season grapefruit for the Jan. issue of Vegetarian Times, as well as grain recipes with just 5 ingredients.

I don't think any of these are online yet (update: you can see the story on the "flip through the mag" feature on the Clean Eating site), but maybe you already subscribe to one or all of these mags! I don't usually see my work in so many different places at the same time (freelancing is all about "feast or famine"), so it's kind of fun to share a whole bunch at once. Most of these seasonal recipes were developed months ago in the midst of summer (and I'm currently working on a couple summer projects now!).

Thank you so much for all your kind comments and emails! It's a heck of a lot easier to share my work accomplishments with such an encouraging and friendly bunch of readers!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Baklava Small Batch Recipe

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you had a chance to cook some great food for the holidays. If you want a traditional and healthy meal to celebrate New Year's Day, you have plenty of time to make Hoppin' John, the easy stew made with black-eyed peas. The peas will bring you luck all year.

You don't have to soak them overnight--just bring to a boil for 3 minutes, remove from heat, cover and soak 1 hour. Drain and rinse the beans and go on with the recipe. This is called the quick-soak method and may be used for any kind of bean. If you can't find ham hocks for the stew, you can always add bacon or chunks of cooked ham at the end.

If you're still in party mode, then make baklava (all those nuts are good for you, by the way). I did it for the first time last week, and it was so much easier than I imagined when I thought about making it all those times. Phyllo is easy to work with, and everything else is a snap. It looks really impressive and tastes incredible--I love the crunch of phyllo dough. I made a small batch and decided to post it that way because I couldn't find a small recipe anywhere.

You can use any combination of walnuts, almonds and pistachios (others would be okay, I think, but those 3 are the traditional choices). You can also use just one. I used walnuts and almonds, which Mike loved, but I think I'd like it with just walnuts.

Did you guys cook anything special for New Year's Eve? We took a little trip to Chicago where much eating and drinking was done, so we had a very low-key night. Do you typically cook a special dish for New Year's Day? I'm looking forward to my black-eyed peas.

And finally, thank you to everyone who has read and commented on this blog throughout the year. I really appreciate every one of you, even if I don't say it all the time! I hope the year brings great things to you and your families!

This recipe makes a small batch of this sweet, nut-filled phyllo pastry. If you would like to use a 9 x 13 pan, double the recipe and do not cut the raw phyllo dough in half. You will need a pastry brush to butter the delicate phyllo sheets.
For filling:
8 oz. raw, whole almonds
8 oz. raw walnut halves
3 Tbs. sugar
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cardamom
1/8 tsp. cloves
6 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into chunks
8 oz. phyllo dough (such as Athens brand), at room temperature

For syrup:
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
2-inch strip orange peel
1-inch strip lemon peel
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 tsp. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread almonds on a baking sheet and roast until nuts are lightly browned in the center, tossing once, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and pulse until chopped. Be careful to avoid grinding nuts to a paste. Transfer to a large bowl.

Spread walnuts on the same baking sheet you used for the almonds and roast until lightly browned, turning once, 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to food processor and chop. Add to bowl with almonds. Stir in sugar, cinnamon, salt, cardamom and cloves. Raise oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Add butter to a small bowl and melt in the microwave. Unroll the phyllo and place on a cutting board. Cut crosswise through the rectangular phyllo to form two smaller rectangles; cover with a slightly damp kitchen towel. Phyllo dough dries out quick when exposed to air. With a pastry brush, butter the bottom and sides of an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 inch square baking dish.

Lift towel and add one piece of phyllo to dish; replace towel (keep the phyllo covered in this manner as you work). Lightly coat phyllo sheet with butter. Top with another piece of phyllo, turning it 90 degrees so the sheets are overlapping; coat with butter. Repeat until you’ve layered 8 sheets of phyllo, coating each one with butter. Top with one-third of the nut mixture. Cover with 8 more sheets of phyllo and one-third of the nuts. Repeat with 8 more sheets of phyllo and the remaining nuts. Finish with 8 more sheets of phyllo (you’ll have some left over). It goes like this:

1) 8 sheets phyllo
2) nuts
3) 8 sheets phyllo
4) nuts
5) 8 sheets phyllo
6) nuts
7) 8 sheets phyllo

With a sharp serrated knife, cut into 12 pieces. Be sure to cut all the way through to the bottom of the dish. Once baked, phyllo will shatter when cut. Bake 30 minutes or until phyllo is golden brown.

When baklava is nearly done baking, make the syrup: combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat, stirring often, until thickened slightly, 7 minutes. Remove peels and cinnamon stick.

When baklava is finished, cool on a rack 5 minutes. Pour syrup over baklava, allowing it to run between the cut pieces. Cool completely, several hours. May be made up to one day ahead. Baklava keeps 7 days at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap.