Monday, January 19, 2009

These Are My Confessions...

I am, understandably (or so I tell myself) picky about my Chinese food.

Having lived in Taiwan and China for a combined total of 2 years, I feel like I have a pretty good sense for authentic Chinese food. As most Americans are no doubt aware, Chinese food in America is, for the most part, a completely different animal than its long lost relative back in the Middle Kingdom (aka 中国, aka China).

The kitchen at Li Qun Roast Duck in Beijing.

One of my greatest complaints with American Chinese food is that it is, generally speaking, extremely greasy and therefore quite heavy. In China, I don't feel like the stir-fried dishes I eat are drenched in oil. In fact, for the most part, what I love about authentic Chinese food is that I rarely feel weighed down after a meal.

Now, it is possible to find good, authentic Chinese restaurants here in the good ole U.S. of A. But it can be a little bit complicated. It helps to have a friend or two in the know. I've been introduced to most of my favorite Chinese restaurants by Chinese friends.

However, I do indeed have a confession to share with you today. My favorite Chinese restaurant here in the States is none other than P.F. Changs. Scandalous! I know. Its slightly embarrassing to admit this in a public forum. My Chinese food credibility is, like, out the window.

Ducks roasting at Li Qun Roast Duck in Beijing.

This is how I explain my infatuation with P.F. Changs: while their style of preparing Chinese dishes is generally not authentic, the flavors, in my opinion, are. As an added bonus, their food is not overwhelmingly greasy. So while the final dish may not look much like what I would order in China, the flavors inevitably take me back to meals I've had there.

One of my close friends in Virginia introduced me to one of my favorite dishes at PF Changs: Ground Chicken with Eggplant. Then, in a somewhat serendipitous turn of events, last year around Chinese New Year I stumbled on an Australian cooking magazine at Barnes and Noble which has quickly become a favored source for new Chinese cooking ideas. To my great excitement the magazine had a recipe for eggplant with minced pork in a spicy Szechuan sauce. I couldn't help but have an "aha!" moment, thinking that this might be my opportunity to recreate the PF Changs' dish at home. Unfortunately, as often happens, I never got around to trying the recipe.

Then 2 weeks ago, before life took an expected, but still decidedly sad turn (we can discuss that in a blog post to come), I had my friend Krista over for a belated birthday dinner and I finally made the eggplant dish. I should not have waited a year. It's fantastic. Not quite the same as the one at PF Changs, but who cares when it tastes this good.

Eggplant with Minced Chicken in Szechuan Sauce
Adapted from delicious. (volume 5 issue 2)

2 t. corn starch
1 lb. ground chicken (if you can't find ground chicken, substitute ground turkey)
2 lg. eggplants, peeled
1 1/2 T. peanut oil
1" chunk ginger, grated
1 T. finely chopped green onion
1/2 T. chili paste (I used Sambal Oelek)

1 1/4 c. chicken stock
1 T. light soy sauce
2 T. sugar
1 1/2 T. apple cider vinegar
1 T. Chinese rice wine (shaohsing)

1 t. salt
Mix all sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Cut the eggplant into strips about 2" long by 1/2" thick. Place the eggplant in a colander and set the colander inside a bowl. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt, toss gently, and let sit for 1 hour. Pour off any water that has accumulated in the bowl.

Meanwhile, mix 1 t. corn starch in a bowl with 1/4 t. salt and 2 1/2 T. water. Mix in the chicken. Set aside.

Heat oil in a wok or pan over medium-high heat. Add the ginger and onion and stir for 15 seconds or until starting to color. Add the chili paste and toss for 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the chicken and stir-fry until almost cooked, about a minute or two. Add the eggplant and stir-fry for about 2 minutes, until beginning to soften. Add sauce, cover and cook on medium-high heat for 10 minutes, tossing 2-3 times, until the eggplant is cooked and almost all liquid has been absorbed.

Stir remaining 1 t. corn starch with 1 T. water. Stir into the eggplant mixture, and then allow to bubble for 1-2 minutes until thickened. Serve with rice.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I Am Not A Pretty Girl... But I Am A Domestic Goddess

I was all ready for 2009. Couldn't wait for the new year to begin. I was feeling the usual anticipation/optimism. I was ready to set some goals, make some plans to improve myself (and the blog). I couldn't wait to see what the new year would bring.

And then it began, and somehow, it began all wrong. I found myself in an awful mood on New Years Day. Suddenly the year stretched ahead of me and it seemed like there was nothing to look forward to. No positive news or developments anywhere on the horizon. It was most assuredly a horrible, no good, very bad day. An Ani DiFranco, angry girl music kind of day*.

So I found myself on New Years Day, mostly dwelling on all the things currently upsetting the delicate balance between feeling relatively happy/well adjusted and feeling completely out of control. In the midst of these, admittedly, depressing thoughts, I remembered that I needed to come up with a couple of appetizers for my family's Sugar Bowl party on Friday night (yay Utes!). And just like that, with that one thought, the clouds parted, the fog lifted, and a small ray of light came shining through.

That, apparently, is the power of food in my life. Seems like, more than anything else, particularly now, food has the power to provide whatever I need most at any given moment in time. Distraction: check. Calming influence: check. Nourishment: check. Joy: check.

So I imagine that in the coming months I'll be spending lots of time in the kitchen. I can't wait. I already spend a lot of time there. You don't always see the fruits of my labors here because most of what I make does not fit into the narrow parameters I currently have set for this blog (although that's likely to change in the near future). The kitchen is just about my favorite place to pass the time right now. If I'm able to show my love for friends and family at the same time by sharing my culinary creations with them, so much the better.

Domestic Goddess in the making... yeah, that's right, I fish too.

My close friends will likely know how hard it is for me to even jokingly claim the title of "Domestic Goddess". My word, there are so many things I can't and don't do. So many people more qualified for the title than I. However, if there is one area in my life that I feel an abundance of confidence, it's in the kitchen. Not everything I make is perfect, and yes, if you ever find yourself at my table, you're likely to be subjected to a litany of disclaimers before you are allowed to dig in to your repast. However, regardless of how the final product looks, I'm likely secure in the knowledge that it will be delicious and hopeful that any time spent sharing food and drink that I've prepared will be nourishing to both the body and the heart.

Today, I have a recipe, that yes, doesn't look quite as pretty as I wanted it to. And maybe could still use a tweak or two. But it was good. Actually, it was exactly what I hoped it would be. An egg custard tart with a smooth, creamy filling and a nice flaky crust. This is one of my favorite things to pick up during visits to Chinatown. As I don't have a Chinatown here in Salt Lake, I'm happy to now be able to make my own egg custard tarts whenever the craving strikes.

Happy New Year. May the year ahead bring much joy and wonder to your life. And maybe an egg custard tart or two.

(Egg Custard Tarts)

As noted above, this recipe could still use a tweak or two. Mostly, this is in the area of the amount of custard filling because the crust recipe makes more tart shells than the filling can fill. My solution would be to do one of the following: either double the filling recipe, or freeze one tray of unbaked tart shells. If you choose to freeze the shells, they'll be ready the next time you want to make the filling. I've already tested this out for you because I did in fact have to put my recipe-making on hold, so I put a muffin tray of tart shells in the fridge and a tray in the freezer. When I was finally able to get around to finishing the filling, I pulled both trays out, filled the tarts, and popped them in the oven together. I let them both cook for the same amount of time, and both trays came out just fine.

3/4 c. confectioners sugar
2 3/4 c. cake flour
3/4 c. butter
1 egg, beaten
1-3 T. cold water

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar and flour. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until the butter is about the same size as small peas. Stir in the egg. Add the water slowly, adding just enough for the dough to come together. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead briefly until the dough is smooth. Roll the dough out to about 1/4" inch. Using a standard biscuit cutter, cut out rounds of dough. Give each round another quick time or two with the roller to stretch it out just a bit further. Then push the dough round into a muffin tin. You want the dough to come just to the rim, or slightly below that. Repeat until you have filled two muffin trays. Prick the base of each tart with a fork. (As noted above, at this point either freeze one tray or double the filling recipe.)

Custard Filling:
1/2 c. water
1/4 c. + 1 T. sugar
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
3/4 c. evaporated milk
1/4 t. vanilla

Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and boil until the sugar has completely dissolved. Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Once the sugar syrup is cool, add eggs and egg yolks to a mixing bowl and beat well. Then add the sugar syrup, milk, and vanilla. Mix well. Fill tart shells about 90% full. Bake for 25-20 minutes. Put trays on cooling racks and let the tarts cool for 10 minutes, before removing from muffin tins. Then let the tarts cool completely on cooling racks.

* For the record, I love me some Ani DiFranco. She is one of my favorite artists, and for the benefit of the uninitiated I feel compelled to say that not all of her music is angry girl music. However, that being said, "I Am Not A Pretty Girl" is one of my all time favorite songs. I often feel like it describes me to a T.