Monday, November 28, 2011

Kung Pao tofu

Kung Pao chicken is a quintessential dish in an American Sichuan-style Chinese restaurant. In the traditional method of preparation, the diced chicken is mixed with a marinade and set aside. The red chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns are fried quickly to flavor the oil. Then the marinated chicken is stir fried with vegetables, and the peanuts are added at the end. The addition of the Sichuan peppercorns is what makes this dish authentic. They have a tongue numbing quality without giving off heat unlike the red chili peppers. I order this dish quite often when I go to a Sichuan style restaurant, but my vegetarian family are not able to try it. Hence I decided to replicate the flavors - well almost replicate - for my vegetarian family.

I have used tofu in place of chicken and have substituted the chili peppers for chili flakes. If you like heat, please feel free to replace the chili flakes with whole dried chilies. Since my daughter does not like Sichuan peppercorns, I have skipped them as well. For an authentic tasting dish please add a teaspoonful along with the chili flakes. The tofu is marinated in a simple marinade of soy sauce and rice wine and then sauteed to give it a light brown color. Then the aromatics are sauteed quickly and the tofu is added back to the pan along with the sauce to thicken the dish. Many versions of this recipe add hoisin sauce as well. I have skipped it for the vegetarian version and used brown sugar in the recipe for that molasses flavor.

The list of ingredients can be intimidating, but you will find most of them in your local grocery store. The only item that is typically not available is the dark soy sauce, for which I had to go to Chinatown. You could try the dish without it, but the rich color of the dish will be compromised.

Kung Pao Tofu

14 ounces organic firm tofu [I like the Nasoya brand]
3 gloves garlic, finely minced
Quarter size piece of ginger thinly sliced
1/2 - 1 teaspoon red chili flakes (I have cooked this dish without the chili flakes as well and it tastes great!)
6 fat scallions chopped, whites only
2 scallions julienne, green parts only
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cups roasted peanuts skinned

Marinade for the tofu
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

3 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons water

  1. Cube the tofu and mix in the marinade ingredients. Let stand while you prepare the other ingredients.
  2. In a small bowl, mix together the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.
  3. Heat a non-stick wok or skillet with 1 tablespoon canola oil over high heat.  Add the marinated tofu and stir-fry for 3 to 4 minutes till it gets a nice light brown color. Remove and set aside. Add another tablespoon of canola oil and the garlic, ginger, and scallions, and stir-fry until fragrant. The garlic should not brown. Add back the browned tofu and pour in sauce and mix to coat the other ingredients. When the sauce is thickened and shiny, stir in peanuts. 
  4. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the green parts of the scallions. Serve warm.
Serves 3 as part of a multi-course meal.

Note: Make it a complete meal with steamed rice and Steamed Asparagus salad  or a Chinese Eggplant Salad.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pasta with Arugula and Mint Pesto

Our favorite Italian food appears on my blog again. We love eating pasta as you can see from the various pasta recipes that I have posted.  In this one I combine arugula and mint to make a bright and fresh pesto.

When you think of arugula, the first thing that comes to mind is bitter, but I have found that the rounded leafed arugula leaves are not bitter but have a peppery taste and the mint makes the pesto refreshing. Unlike a regular pesto, I add the pine nuts to the pasta instead of adding it to the pesto. The richness of the nuts and the texture really comes through when they are added whole to the finished dish. Also, the Parmesan cheese is added for each serving, so that each person can grate as much cheese as they like. This is a practice that I use when I make any kind of pesto so that I can vary the cheese in the dish that I am using the pesto for.

The pesto recipe is very flexible. Please feel free to vary the quantities of the ingredients based on your personal taste. You can taste along the way while making the pesto and adjust accordingly. And once the pesto is ready, this is the easiest pasta recipe ever.

Angel Hair pasta with Arugula and Mint Pesto

1/2 lb angel hair pasta or spaghetti
5 tablespoons of pesto (Recipe below)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
Block of Parmesan cheese for grating at the table
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the angel hair pasta and cook for 3 minutes. 
  2. In the meantime, put the pesto and the salt in a bowl large enough to toss the pasta. When the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the pesto. Toss well. Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts and mix once. Transfer to a serving bowl.
  3. Pass the Parmesan cheese at the table with a grater.

Serves 3
Arugula and Mint Pesto
5 cups arugula, stems removed and chopped coarsely
3/4 cup mint leaves
2 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 - 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Place the arugula, mint and garlic in the food processor. Pulse till the arugula and mint leaves are coarsely chopped. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt and with the motor running, slowly start adding the extra virgin olive oil, till the mixture starts to form a nice viscous paste. It should not be thick like peanut butter and not thin like ketchup, but somewhere in between. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Makes about a cup - will last refrigerated for a couple of weeks. Top up with a layer of olive oil before storing.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Warm butternut squash and shiitake mushroom salad

Roasted butternut squash is great, but roasted shiitake mushrooms are awesome. Combined together with some crispy shallots and drizzled with a mustard balsamic dressing it is a wonderful combination of flavors.

Roasting the butternut squash brings out the inherent sweetness of the squash and the roasted shiitake mushrooms are almost crisp and chewy. The addition of aromatic rosemary and garlic gives added flavor to the vegetables Set on a bed of soft lettuce this is a truly delectable salad. Would make a good addition to a Thanksgiving meal.

Butternut squash and shiitake mushroom salad
2 cups peeled and cubed butternut squash (cut into 1/2 inch pieces)
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and halved or quartered depending on size
3 small shallots, sliced - rings separated
2 large cloves of garlic, finely minced
3 teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely minced
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cups soft salad leaves like butterhead, red oak, green leaf or a mix of the same, torn into bite size pieces

1/2 tablespoon good quality balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
  1. Preheat oven to 450 F.
  2. Toss the butternut squash with 1 tablespoon extra virgin oil, 1/2 the minced garlic, 1 1/2 teaspoons minced rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Lay them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes turning them halfway through the roasting. The butternut squash will have very lightly caramelized edges and it will be fork tender.
  3. Similarly toss the shiitake mushrooms with 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, the remaining minced garlic, 1 1/2 teaspoon minced rosemary, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper and place them in a single layer on another baking sheet. Roast for about 20 minutes till the mushrooms are cooked and a little crisp, but not like chips. 
  4. After the squash and mushrooms are roasted reduce the oven temperature to 400 F.  Toss the shallot rings with 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and lay them out in a single layer on another baking sheet. Cook for about 6 to 8 minutes till they are brown but not burnt. (They do burn pretty easily).
  5. Make a dressing by whisking the balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, with the dijon mustard and salt. Toss the lettuce with the dressing and then mix in the roasted butternut squash and the shiitake mushrooms. 
  6. Serve on a large platter sprinkled with with roasted shallots.
Serves 2 to 3.

Chinese eggplant salad

I am a big fan of eggplants and I like to eat them in any cuisine. Roasted eggplants are popular in Indian and Middle eastern/Turkish cuisine. This is a recipe using roasted eggplants from Ken Hom's Vegetarian Cookery book. The long pale purple Chinese eggplants are perfect for this dish since they do not have too many seeds. The roasted eggplants are peeled and dressed to make a wonderful cold salad with a pungent dressing.

This salad makes a delicious first course to an Asian meal - and the best part is that it is quick and can be made in advance. It tastes good both cold and at room temperature. I prefer to serve it at room temperature especially when it is cool outside like it is now.

Chinese eggplant salad

Chinese eggplants

3 long Chinese eggplant (about 1 1/2 lbs)

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
2 1/2 teaspoon sesame chili oil
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons finely sliced scallions (1 scallion)

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Place the eggplants onto a baking sheet and place the sheet on the center rack of the oven. Cook for 30 minutes or so until the eggplants look brown and the skin has shrivelled. (If the eggplants are thin they will take less time to cook - if left in the oven for a long time, they will burst and the insides will splatter. Hence it is important to monitor the roasting process). After 15 minutes turn the eggplants so that they cook on all sides  and the skin is easy to remove. Let the eggplants cool on the baking sheet. Once cool, remove the skin and cut the flesh lengthwise into 2 inch pieces. Arrange them onto a serving platter.
  2. In the meantime, mix all the ingredients for the dressing and drizzle it evenly on the roasted eggplants.
Serves 3

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thai fried rice with coconut milk

Rice is a staple in Asian cuisine and each country has their own special way of flavoring the rice. In Thailand coconut milk and curry pastes are omnipresent in their food. In this Thai inspired fried rice, the rice is cooked with fragrant coconut milk and then flavored with some aromatics and a hint of red curry paste for color and heat. Corn accentuates the sweetness of the coconut milk and the addition of edamame enhances the protein content of the dish and adds a textural contrast.

1 cup jasmine rice
1 cup water
3/4 cup lite coconut milk (for a stronger coconut flavor use regular coconut milk)
1 cup frozen edamame beans - thawed
1/2 cup frozen sweet corn kernels thawed
1/2 large red bell
pepper, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
3/4 cup chopped onion
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon red curry paste ***
2 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
  1. In a saucepan, add the water and coconut milk to the jasmine rice and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cover and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave for 10 minutes. Remove the cover and fluff the rice with a fork. Spread onto a baking sheet to allow it to cool.
  2. Heat a heavy bottom skillet, with canola oil over medium high heat. Add the onions and the garlic and saute for about 3 minutes over medium heat till the onions are light brown. Now add the curry paste, thawed edamame, thawed corn kernels and salt and cook for about 3 minutes. Finally add the chopped red bell pepper and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the rice and mix well to combine and cook for a couple of minutes till the rice has heated through. Adjust for seasoning. Serve warm.
Serves 2 to 3 as part of a multicourse meal 

*** I like the Maesri brand of curry paste since it is completely vegetarian. Most other brands of curry paste have shrimp paste and fish sauce.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Stir fried Brussel Sprouts - South Indian style

In South India, a simple vegetable stir fry is present at every meal. Being married to a South Indian, I learned the basic formula for a traditional stir fry [called poriyal]  from my mom-in-law who is a super cook.

A very basic stir fry consists of small pieces or shredded vegetables, depending on the type of vegetable sauteed with mustard seeds, urad dal, asafoetida and curry leaves. And in the state of Tamilnadu, it is garnished with freshly grated coconut. I have done away with the curry leaves since it is not available near where I live, but it does add to the flavor. The coconut adds richness to a very simple dish, which I have also skipped for today. You could try both versions - they are equally good.

Traditionally this dish is made with cabbage since brussel sprouts are not a common vegetable in India, but since they are part of the same family I decided to substitute brussel sprouts for cabbage. The brussel sprouts get caramelized as they cook and every mouthful has a little crunch from the browned urad dal.

Stir fried Brussel Sprouts South Indian style
1 lb brussel sprouts, thinly sliced (I used the food processor)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
2 teaspoon urad dal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 whole dry red chili, broken into 2 pieces (releases the heat - discard the seeds if you wish)
1/8 teaspoon asafoetida (hing)
8 to 10 fresh curry leaves (optional)
1/2 cup freshly grated coconut (optional)

  1. Heat a large non-stick heavy bottomed skillet with canola oil over medium high heat. Add the urad dal, mustard seeds, dry red chili and asafoetida. When the mustard seeds start to crackle, add the curry leaves (if using) and the sliced brussel sprouts and mix well. Add the salt and mix once more. Cook uncovered for about 8 minutes over medium high heat stirring occasionally. Once the brussel sprouts caramelize, cover and cook for about 5 more minutes till they are soft but not mushy. If you like your vegetables crunchy, adjust the cooking time accordingly. 
  2. Garnish with the freshly grated coconut if using and serve with steamed rice and a gravy. 

Serves 2 to 3 as part of a meal.

Beet infused penne with feta and beet greens

My love affair with beets and their greens continue. This time they are incorporated into a pasta. I roast the beets with a light drizzle of olive oil which helps to concentrate their sweetness. The greens I blanch and mix into a sauce with onions, garlic, a little pinch of chili flakes for kick and fresh plum tomatoes.

I like to to use whole wheat pasta for the hearty sauces and this is one of them - the beets give the pasta a gorgeous hue. Then I finally top it off with some coarsely grated feta cheese. The picture is not the best, but you get the idea - nighttime photography is not my strong point, but it tasted great!

Penne with beets, greens and feta

8 oz beets (3 small beets)
One bunch beet greens
1 large clove of garlic, finely minced
1 1/2 medium white onions, finely chopped (a little over a cup of chopped onions)
2 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 small calabrian dried chilies chopped or 1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Clean and trim the beets and place them in a small baking dish. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil over the beets and sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Cover tightly with foil and roast in the middle rack of the oven for 40 minutes to an hour. Remove from the oven and make a cut in the foil to release the steam. Then carefully remove the foil so as not to burn yourself. Let the beets cool and then remove the skin and chop into 1/2 inch pieces.
  3. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Add the onions and garlic and saute for 5 minutes till the onions are a light brown. Add the dried chili peppers, chopped tomatoes and 3/4 teaspoon salt and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat till the tomatoes start to break down and create a sauce.
Note: For more recipes with beets click here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thumbprint cookies

The previous post was a skinny brownie and this one is a nice buttery cookie. It is nice to indulge in both - the trick is moderation as I say to my family.

These thumbprint cookies are decadent, crumbly, and buttery with a faint hint of lemon and a sweet gooey center. The lemon zest in the dough gives the cookie the freshness despite it being decadent. The center can be filled with any jam or preserve of your choice. My favorite fillings are strawberry spread and dark cherry spread made by St. Dalfours.  I like their spreads since they have no added sugar and use grape juice concentrate instead to sweeten. Marmalade with its hint of bitterness makes a nice grown up thumbprint cookie. You could also use chocolate, but in that case skip the lemon juice and the lemon zest.

Thumbprint cookies with Jam
1/4 cup strawberry jam
1/4 cup dark cherry jam
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Fig - 1
Fig - 2

    Fig - 3

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 3 large baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper. 
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt and whisk to blend.
  3. In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy. Beat in the egg yolks, lemon zest, lemon juice and vanilla. Add the flour mixture in 2 additions and beat just until moist clumps form. Gather the dough together into a ball. 
  4. Pinch off the dough to form 1-inch balls as per the Fig - 1. Place on the prepared baking sheets, spacing 1 1/2 inch apart. Use the 1/2 teaspoon measuring spoon or a melon baller to create depressions in the center of each ball as per Fig - 2. Fill each indentation with nearly 1/2 teaspoon jam. Bake until golden brown, about 16 minutes.Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely.
  5. Store in an airtight container between layers of butter paper for a week.
Makes 46 cookies

The number of cookies will depend on the temperature of the butter. If the butter is not soft, then the dough will be slightly stiff resulting in fewer cookies.
It is very important to leave enough space between the cookies, since they will spread while baking.
It is critical that the cookies are not overfilled with jam, since the jam will melt while baking and overflow.

Note: This recipe is adapted from Emeril Lagasse's Raspberry Lemon thumbprint cookies

Friday, November 4, 2011

Skinny brownies

All of us chocolate lovers love brownies but can't indulge too much since they are extremely sinful. Nick Malgieri - who ran the pastry program at the culinary school from where I graduated has a low fat brownie recipe in his book Perfect Light Desserts: Fabulous Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and More Made with Real Butter, Sugar, Flour, and Eggs, All Under 300 Calories Per Generous Serving which uses dutch cocoa, apple sauce and egg whites. I have adapted from this recipe.

Unlike traditional brownies these are light, moist and not so dense. They don't have the crackle top, but great to satisfy that chocolate craving without adding on the pounds. Even my 9 year old loves these even though she doesn't have to count calories.

Once you have tried this recipe you can compare them with these Supernatural brownies also by Nick Malgieri and I bet these will come out as winners!

Skinny brownies

Asparagus salad with a sesame soy dressing

Asparagus is one of my go to vegetables and roasting is what I tend to do most. In Chinese cooking, I stir fry them or add them to noodles or fried rice. Here the asparagus is lightly steamed and then dressed with a tangy, salty and spicy dressing. It is a great way to show case great quality produce.

This dish is can be served slightly warm, at room temperature or even cold. Hence it makes a super make ahead dish. It is a good first course for a multi-course Chinese menu.

Asparagus with a sesame soy dressing

1 bunch thick asparagus (about 1 lb)
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoon chili oil
1 teaspoon low sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds [toast over medium heat till light brown]
  1. Trim the asparagus to get rid of the tough woody ends. Cut into half. If you have a large steamer, leave them whole - makes a prettier presentation.
  2. Place the asparagus in a steamer and steam for 3 to 6 minutes depending on the thickness of the spears. They should not be mushy but should still have some crunch. Or you could blanch them in salted boiling water and then shock them in cold water. Transfer to a serving dish and set aside to cool.
  3. In the meantime, make a dressing with the lemon juice, chili oil, sesame oil, soy sauce and salt. Whisk till the salt dissolves. Pour over the cooled asparagus and sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds.
Serves 3 to 4 depending on the number of courses being served.

Note: If you are a asparagus lover, try some of these other asparagus dishes.

Penne with Arugula and Tomatoes

When my husband is travelling, my daughter and me eat things that we are fond of and he is not. Last night we had roasted sweet potatoes (the white kind), roasted asparagus - nice and thick spears (he likes the pencil kind), and to go with it, we had a very fresh tasting pasta. I created an aglio e oglio [garlic and oil in Italian] sauce and tossed the pasta in it with fresh arugula and chopped tomatoes. The juice from the tomato created a very light coating on the pasta along with garlic and olive oil from the aglio olio and the arugula gave a nice fresh punch thanks to its mild bitterness.

Penne with arugula and tomatoes
2 cups mezze penne or any other short cut pasta like fusili or farfalle
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon finely sliced fresh red chili pepper (or 1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes)
1/2 - 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups chopped fresh arugula
1 medium sized vine ripened tomato chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
Freshly grated parmesan cheese for serving

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to directions on the box.
  2. In the meantime heat a 10 inch heavy skillet with extra virgin olive oil over low heat. Add the garlic slices and the fresh red chili or chili flakes. Continue to cook over low heat till the garlic is soft. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt to the pan and keep over low heat till the pasta is cooked.
  3. When the pasta is cooked, save 1/2 cup of the pasta water and drain. Add the drained pasta to the  pan. Raise the heat to medium and stir to coat the pasta completely with the sauce. If the sauce is too dry, add a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water. Turn off the heat. Then add the chopped arugula and chopped tomatoes and toss together to combine. The heat from the pasta will wilt the arugula.
  4. Serve with freshly grated parmesan.
Serves 2.

Shrimp with leeks and thyme

It has been a while since I posted something that I cooked for myself. Shrimp is my most favorite shellfish and I tend to eat it a lot. Growing up for me, shrimp was to vegetables as bacon is to vegetables. My mom would manage to feed me any vegetable as long as there was chopped up shrimp pieces. A lot has changed since then - my love for vegetables has grown exponentially and my love for shrimp continues to exist.

Today I sauteed the shrimp with some leeks, garlic, fresh green chili and thyme. It was extremely quick - another reason why I like to cook and eat shrimp. The combination of leeks and thyme is very light and fragrant. With a splash of lemon juice to finish, it was heavenly. It tastes great over steamed rice, pasta, couscous or quinoa. And I bet depending on what you pair it up with it will be a new dish. I had it with steamed rice - my favorite carb.

Shrimp with Leeks and Thyme
6 oz peeled and de-veined shrimp, thawed if frozen [I used 26 to 30 count / lb]
1 large leek, white part only
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh garlic, about 2 cloves
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon fresh green chili thinly sliced [optional]
1 teaspoon fresh red chili, seeded thinly sliced
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

  1. Clean the leek and cut them into 1 1/2 inch long pieces - then cut the pieces lengthwise into thin strips or julienne. [This gives the dish a noodles with shrimp effect]
  2. Heat a 10 inch heavy bottomed skillet with olive oil over medium high heat. Add the leeks and garlic and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the chili's and continue to cook over medium heat till the leeks have softened but not brown. 
  3. At this point dry the shrimp with a paper towel and add it to the leek mixture along with the thyme. Cook the shrimps for 2 to 3 minutes on each side (depending on the size of the shrimp). When the shrimp is pink it is ready. [Overcooking will toughen the shrimp].
  4. Serve with your carb of choice.
Serves 1