Thursday, July 31, 2008

Perfect for a picnic: jam jar muffins

A friend of mine who founded my favorite flickr food photography group, the food photography club, posted an image of little cakes baked in preserving jars. I thought the idea was so cute and would work well with an adapted muffin recipe. Thorsten’s cakes are made with cream cheese and egg whites and apparently can be kept in the jars for up to two weeks. I would be afraid to represent that my recipe would fare equally well (and afraid to poison you!) – but the good thing is that these delicious little lemon poppy seed muffins will not last that long anyway! I used little jam jars with a tad less than 1 cup capacity. Baked in these jars with a little spoon tied to the outside, they make the perfect summer picnic accompaniment. They’re self-contained, won’t squish in the picnic basket and are simply adorable!

My muffins have a little surprise at the bottom: a tablespoon of jam that comes out of the oven molten and delicious. When you cut or spoon into the muffin you end up with a dollop of jam in each bite. Strawberry jam is perfect with the lemon poppy seed muffins – I could easily see it working equally well with corn muffins.

Jam jar muffins
(yield: six large muffins)

3 lemons, scrubbed and patted dry
½ cup butter, room temperature
1 cup plus 2 Tbs sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk
2 cups flour
2 Tbs poppy seeds
¼ cup plus 4 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 tablespoons strawberry jam

Heat oven to 375. Grease inside of jam jars. Lightly spread one tablespoon of jam into the bottom of each jar. Finely grate lemon peel to yield 2 Tbs.

In a large bowl, beat butter and 1 cup sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add lemon peel.

In a separate bowl, stir baking soda into yogurt (it will bubble).

Fold flour into butter mix 1/3 of the time alternating with the yogurt mix. Stir in poppy seeds. Stir in 4 tablespoons lemon juice. When well blended, scoop into jam jars until ~2/3 to ¾ full (muffins may pop up beyond the top of the jar when baked but will easily compress when the lid is closed). Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool on a rack. Combine remaining ¼ cup with 2 tablespoons sugar. Spoon mixture evenly over the top of each muffin.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Chinese street food in your kitchen: Zha Ziang Mian

Even before I lived in Beijing I loved Chinese food. Living there only increased my fondness for the cuisine as it is so much more varied and interesting than what we are used to being served in American-adapted Chinese restaurants in this country. Chinese food is far more flavorful and vegetable-filled and far less heavy, fried and saucy than we are led to believe based on what is available here.

Up until recently, I seldom cooked Chinese food for lack of a good cookbook. I now have one that I love thanks to my dad who found The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco by Cecilia Chiang (complete with an Alice Waters foreword). The cookbook is full of stories from the author’s childhood, which, I will admit, I’ve only skimmed, as I have been completely focused on the wonderful recipes and beautiful photos that accompany them. The recipes are well written with clear explanations of any out-of-the-ordinary ingredients or procedures that make them virtually foolproof. The book covers all of the expected categories including soups and noodles. There’s a great chapter on street food that contains one of my personal favorites: Zha Ziang Mian.

Zha Ziang Mian is a noodle dish topped with ground pork cooked in a soy-bean-hoisin-garlic sauce. It’s completely irresistible if not too photogenic. I made a little adaptation and used thinly sliced pork tenderloin instead of ground pork and added a few extra toppings for color. But if you stick to the original, you can’t go wrong either.

Zha Ziang Mian (adapted from The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco by Cecilia Chiang)
(serves 4)

2 Tbs bean sauce
2 Tbs hoisin sauce
2 Tbs soy sauce

3 Tbs peanut oil
1 Tsp minced garlic
½ lb coarsely ground pork shoulder (pork butt) or ½ lb pork tenderloin, sliced thinly
1 Tbs Shaoxing wine
1 Tsp peeled, minced fresh ginger
1 Tbs minced green onions
½ pound fresh 1/8-inch-wide Chinese noodles
½ English cucumber, partially peeled, cut into 2-inch-long julienne pieces (about ½ cup)

Combine sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

Have remaining ingredients pre-measured and standing by as cooking the pork takes just a few minutes.

Boil water for the noodles.

Heat a large wok over high heat, add oil and swirl to coat pan. Add garlic and cook until fragrant and slightly golden, about 10 seconds. Add pork and stir constantly to break the meat apart. Cook pork until just a bit of pink remains and it begins to brown (about 2 minutes). Add wine and ginger and continue to stir for a few second more. Pour in the reserved sauce, bring the liquid to a boil, and stir to thoroughly coat the pork. Add the green onions and toss to combine well. Remove pan from the heat.

Cook the noodles until tender (about 2 minutes). Immediately drain. I like to put the noodles in individual serving dishes, top with the sauce, and garnish with the cucumber, allowing each person to toss their own noodles to combine them with the sauce.

Serve warm, cold or at room temperature as desired.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Udon noodle soup your way

When I worked in midtown Manhattan, there was a Korean deli that, while typical in all other ways, had one special feature: make-your-own udon. At a little station, a cook would fill an enormous styrofoam cup (the size of a super-sized soda from a fast food restaurant) with plump noodles and broth, and then you would select your add-ins from a wide variety of vegetables, meats, tofu and garnishes. It cost $6.50 and was incredibly filling and satisfying. I used to walk all the way across town in search of the soup, which was only available during the winter months.

I was reminded of my love of Udon (and making it just they way you like it) recently when seeing a couple of posts pop up with udon recipes. One was on Just Hungry, and the other on Cook and Eat. I started with the Just Hungry recipe and some Japanese flour which was labeled "Hakuriki ko flower nisshin" and although it didn’t appear to be high gluten, I was assured by the store it was appropriate. Other than having to add quite a bit more water than suggested (in total, I used 2/3 - 3/4 cup water), the recipe worked perfectly. I tried it once in the Kitchenaid with the dough hook, and once in the Cuisinart with the normal blade attachment – both worked fine. Making the noodles was amazingly simple: no egg, no rolling through a pasta machine – just kneading, resting, rolling and cutting. If I said I spent more than 10 minutes of active time on the noodles, I would be exaggerating.

The broth was a little trickier. I found the Just Hungry recipe way too strong. Cook and Eat used Harumi’s recipe (for the udon noodles as well, which call for a mixture of all purpose and bread flours), and I have had great luck with hers in the past. Depending on your taste, you might want to dilute the broth. You can also buy a pre-made concentrated soup base and dilute it to your taste.

The fun part is adding your own mix-ins. I went with thinly sliced, sautéed pork shoulder, spinach, shiitake and enoki mushrooms, scallions and a healthy pinch of Japanese shichimi togarashi. You could add anything: broccoli, carrots, onions and chicken to name a few. Delicate greens like spinach need not be cooked – they wilt in the hot broth and are ready to eat by the time the soup gets to the table.

Udon noodles

See here or here.

For the soup (adapted from Harumi's Japanese Home Cooking: Simple, Elegant Recipes for Contemporary Tastes):

1 2/3-2 cups homemade udon noodles
1 cup dashi stock
1/3 cup basic mentsuyu sauce (see below)
finely chopped spring onions to taste
Add-ins to taste including: enoki mushrooms, fresh spinach leaves, shiitake mushrooms, egg, thinly sliced pork shoulder sautéed with a little garlic and ginger
chili powder or sichimi togarashi to taste

Metsuyu sauce:

4-inch piece dried kombu seaweed
1 cup water
1 3/4 cup soy sauce
1 1/4 cup mirin
2 tbs superfine sugar
4 1/2 tbs dried fish flakes

Heat noodles by pouring boiling water over them in a colander. Drain well and place in individual serving bowls.

Mix three parts dashi stock with one part Metsuyu sauce and heat in a pan. As it comes to a boil, turn the heat off and pour over the udon. Add in additional toppings. Sprinkle with spring onions and chili powder or shichimi togarashi to taste.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Fresh pea soup and a little news

I'll start with the news! I placed second in last month's DMBGIT awards with my tapioca pudding image. Thank you so so much Helen and the other judges, Jen, Graeme, Nadia and Alyson! I love this monthly event because it's a great way to see what everyone else is up to and get caught up on posts you might have missed. See the roundup and the other wonderful images here. I have been focusing much more on food photography lately. I hope to broaden my focus beyond my own little world, and as as such have set up an on-line portfolio (a work in progress) that you can see here. If you know anyone looking for a one-stop shop photographer, cook, and stylist, please send them my way! Now, on to the post . . .

There are beautiful, fresh peas of all kinds everywhere right now. I’ve been eating them in salads, raw and cooked, and snacking on English peas right out of the pod.

I love fresh pea soup, and I’d like to think I have the patience to shell the peas myself, but that never seems to happen. Luckily, the farmer’s market has been selling freshly shelled peas by the half pint and I feel like that’s close enough to shelling them myself.

Taking advantage of this short pea season, I made pea soup and served it with fun garnishes and a radish and ricotta tartine on the side. It’s the perfect lunch or light dinner and can be served both hot or cold.

I learned a tip from Alice Waters that takes a little more time but makes a difference: after puréeing the soup, place it in an ice bath and stir it until cooled. This helps to maintain the soup’s bright green color.

Fresh pea soup

4 cups freshly shelled peas
1 quart chicken stock
One onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 cup plain yogurt
2-3 cloves garlic, roasted and peeled
1 sprig thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/4 teaspoon celery seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Garnishes (optional):

Chopped chive
Thinly sliced radish
Pea pods
Pea shoots

Sauté carrot and onion in olive oil until translucent. Add chicken stock, garlic, thyme, tarragon and celery seeds. Bring to a boil, simmer, uncovered for 15 minutes. Remove one cup of stock from the pot and reserve.

Add the peas, simmer until soft (5-10 minutes maximum). Purée soup in a blender or with an immersion blender and then pour into an ice bath (a heat proof bowl placed on top of a bowl filled with ice). Stir until cooled to room temperature and then remove from the ice. Stir in one cup plain yogurt. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Check soup for desired consistency. If too thick, slowly add in reserved stock until it is as thick as you like it.

Reheat or keep at room temperature to serve. Garnish with chopped chive, pea pods, and radish or as desired.