Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Easy as pie

by Lisa

It has been freezing these days in Berkeley. So last Friday when I had friends over for dinner, I knew what I had to make. Of course, what I really wanted to make was Molly's parsley pesto again, which to be honest I've been making almost compulsively since we first made it last week. (Is three times in a week a lot?) But I knew I needed to have something more substantial, something warm and comforting. In the kitchen I found an unassuming bag of russet potatoes and then it hit me - those two words: shepherd's pie. It was the idea I had been looking for and didn't know, and/but heck - I'm always looking for excuses to turn on our gas oven. (It heats up our house nicely.)

It was raining (torrentially, I might add) that day, but I was not going to let that keep me from getting ground beef. Armed with an umbrella, I hiked up my jeans and headed to the store.

Actually, to tell you the truth, the whole time I had arguments with myself as to whether or not it was a good idea. Though my jeans stayed dry, my shoes and feet did not. I thought to myself, is it time to get polka dotted rainboots or fake Uggs? I hope not. But as I continued along and thought about the hot and bubbly creamy mashed potatoes on top of tasty ground beef, I came to my senses. And I'm glad I did. It truly was a good day to make shepherd's pie.

We had the pie with a salad, Greek-ish: baby greens, cherry tomatoes, red onions, and feta with a vinaigrette made from lemon zest and juice, olive oil, coarse kosher sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Of course we had a fresh warm loaf of bread, too, and I probably could have just eaten that and been content, but then again - no, the pie was to die for, even worth the cost of getting drenched in the rain.

So, whether or not it's raining today where you live, let me tell you: today is a good day to make shepherd's pie.

Okay, now that I've written you a beautiful, heartfelt post, it's time for you to send me/us some love! My shameless plug:

Our blog is powered by Blogger and your comments. Really. Comments equals love, says Stephanie. Maybe you thought you need a blogger account to comment. You don't! In fact, you don't even need a gmail account. (Though they are pretty spiffy.) So leave us some love; let us know you stopped by. Don't remain a stalker - a closet love-is-cooking-reader, if you will - like some. Ahem. (End shameless plug.)

Now for the recipe...

Shepherd's Pie

For the potatoes:
5 medium sized potatoes (peeled or not)
1 tablespoon butter
roughly half a cup of milk
salt and pepper

For the filling/pie:
1.5 pounds ground beef
2-3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium yellow onion, diced
half a bag of frozen green peas
1 tablespoon oil
1 packet mushroom gravy mix (I know, most gourmets don't have this kind of stuff sitting around, but yanno. It is okay to go out in the rain for this ingredient. I promise it'll be worth it.)

Preheat oven to 400.

Potatoes. Boil salted water for potatoes. Throw in diced potatoes and boil, covered, until cooked, about 20 minutes. (I left the skins on, and some fell off while cooking, so I had about 1/3 of the skins in my mashed potatoes. This was the effect I wanted, as so really, my laziness paid off for me this time!) Drain, and to a large bowl, add potatoes (with however much skin you like), milk, butter, salt and pepper and mix with a hand beater or potato masher until smooth. Adjust milk to desired consistency. It's better to err on the wet side since it dries a bit in the oven.

Filling. While potatoes are boiling, heat oil in large pan. Add onions and sautee until they are lighter in color. Add carrots stir and cover, allowing them to cook, about 10 minutes. Set vegetables aside and cook ground meat in pan; drain if there is excess fat. Combine meat with vegetables, then add frozen peas and heat until peas are brought to the same temperature as the rest. Sprinkle mushroom gravy mix (don't add water!) to mixture and stir to combine.

Putting it all together. Spread meat mixture on bottom of 9x13 pan. Spread potatoes on top; leave it rough so that it browns nicely. Bake at 400 for about 30 minutes until warmed through and nicely browned. (Recipes online said until "hot and bubbly." I wanted mine to get bubbly, but it started getting too dark before it ever got there. Am I a failure?)

Serve with salad, bread, all the good stuff.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sip or slip with soup

by Lisa

Growing up in a Chinese household, soup was something Mom made many nights to go along with dinner. The stock was most often made with pork bones and to that base was added many a vegetable and/or mysterious dried seafood. Other varieties included my favorite chicken medicine soup made with ginseng; or Emperor soup made with leftover roast duck along with tomatoes, firm tofu, and pickled vegetables--hot and sour and, well, ducky: definitely killer.

All of these soups were brothy; a creamy soup was never to be found except sitting in a can on the garage pantry rack for the occasional casserole--which wasn't really a speciality or anything, just something "American," and that was good enough for us kids.

So I was surprised when at 17 or 18 I realized that other people actually eat creamed (or at least pureed) soups as a regular thing--and that it could even be gourmet! My favorite high school English teacher gave me The Silver Palate as a graduation present, sending with it her wishes that I would use it share the love of Christ with others I met through the gift of hospitality--and truly, the gifts of her friendship and that book have truly sparked such a passion.

(An aside: She had wanted to take Albert and me--her Teacher Assistant and Teacher Cadet, respectively--to Chez Panisse when we got into Berkeley, but things didn't work out so we ended up at this tiny little Tuscan restauarant on College Avenue, which, after now having been to CP--which to be fair, is amazing--I might dare to say is even better. Was even better, I should say. So unfair.)

I should also add, though this probably goes without saying, that this same teacher inspired me towards writing, in addition to all she did to encourage me in endeavors both in faith and food.

The Silver Palate has a few chapters on soups. My favorite of these has to be carrot; many people like it with ginger, but I say it's best on its own. Its taste is as vibrant as its color--sweet (in a vegetable-y sort of way) as it slips down your throat. And so I don't really like to add anything to it. I have pretty much followed the Palate's recipe religiously since I found it, but I omit the orange juice. (Just because things are the same color doesn't mean they go along.) I think I should add that I don't usually even like cooked carrots; this recipe is that good.

I made asparagus soup for that dinner party with Steph a while back, which we never ended up posting about, unfortunately. Which is really quite ridiculous because we had such good food that needed raving. (Steph, do post your chocolate pudding recipe. Just so I don't have to call you one more time for it; I think three has been enough.) But back to the point. The asparagus was truly dreamy and captivating. (Oh, of course, as was that pudding.) But, to be honest, it was quite a bit of work.

This picture was taken by my friend David. My wonderful friend Sarah helped tie the garnishes; aren't they lovely?

So I tried to make zucchini soup yesterday (by method similar to the carrot thinking it'd be easy), and I have just one word for you, Mr. Zucchini Soup: boring. (I don't even have a picture of you!) I had four small bowls, adding different ingredients each time to see if it was just missing a li'l somethin' but I couldn't figure it out. I salvaged the leftovers by making some pasta shells and throwing them together with black pepper and parmesan, and while I was eating that, I thought about making it by the asparagus method; afterall, the two vegetables sort of taste similar--full of green. Somehow cutting the zucchini seemed like less work than picking through and trimming asparagus; maybe it'll be worth it. Oh, and it'll probably a bit smoother, too: the asparagus had a bit of fiber (and I was too rushed at the time to push it through the sieve). Also, zucchini blends nicely, and when its peel is fragmented into tiny flecks of dark green it nicely offsets the lighter green of the soup.

One more green thing before I finish up here. I thought I would mention that I recently made the Brussels sprouts with fettucini and pine nuts on Orangette adapted from Gourmet. Definitely worth making, imho, and sure to banish the distrust of many a person who (thinks he) dislikes this little cousin of the cabbage. (And if you have non foodie friends who can't imagine eating the thought of eating only Brussels sprouts with only pasta to go with it, you can throw in some bacon with it. But I really think it's cheating.) I was pleasantly surprised by the goodness of this simple recipe. I've never had a successful pasta dish without garlic or black pepper, but this here was definitely a winner. I'd make it again, just to get a chance to appreciate the fragrance of the sprouts being sauteed with butter. Yum.

Now there' s almost too much green on this page, so I think I'll tell you about these beauties; I've been sneaking about four or five a day this week. Oh, my darling Californian clementine.

Well, time to get back to making Chinese noodles. (They are definitely being added to a soup with vegetables and dried seafood.) The dough's already been started with the aid of the, uh, KitchenAid--one reason I'm grateful to be back at my parents', because, everybody knows that you can't own a KitchenAid unless you're married.

Carrot Soup Without Orange Juice
pretty much from The Silver Palate, except for, of course, the orange juice
(and I'm currently doing this from memory, since the book's back on my shelf in Berkeley)

4 tablespoons butter (I use less and sometimes replace half with olive oil)
1 medium yellow onion, diced

1 1/2 pounds carrots, chopped (about 8-12, but it really doesn't matter)

4 cups chicken stock
salt to taste
pepper to taste, and also to pass at the table

Melt butter over low heat in heavy pot. Cook onions in butter until tender, about 20-25 minutes. (The secret to this soup is to be patient and really let the onions cook this long.) Add carrots and stock and bring to boil. Lower heat and cook for 20-30 minutes, until carrots are very tender. Strain, reserving the stock. Puree, in batches, the vegetable mixture in a food processor or blender, adding a half or whole cup of stock with each batch. Return puree to pot and reheat, adding reserved stock to bring to desired consistency. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve hot.

Leftovers, if you have them, are good cold, too!

Cream of Asparagus Soup
adapted from Victoria: At Table with Family and Friends

1 1/2 pounds asparagus
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium-sized yellow onion, diced
2 shallots, thinly sliced, plus 6 for garnish
1/4 cup dry vermouth (I used sauvignon blanc)
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
4 chives, for garnish

1. Remove and discard the tough stems of the asparagus. Reserve 3 tips per person for garnish. Cut the asparagus in 1-inch lengths. Peel the asparagus if they are large. (Otherwise the outer layer may impart a bitterness to the soup.)
2. Melt the butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onion in the butter, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add the shallots and cover with vermouth. Cook until onions are translucent.
3. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus. Cover and cook the soup for 5-10 minutes, until the asparagus is very tender. Season the soup with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg.
4. Allow the soup to cool slightly. Strain the soup and reserve the liquid in the saucepan.
5. In batches, puree the vegetables in a blender or food processor. Add about one cup of the cooking stock and process until smooth. Strain the soup through a fine sieve to remove any asparagus fiber. Return soup to saucepan.
6. In a medium-size bowl, gradually whisk cream into flour until flour dissolves. Slowly whisk that mixture into the soup. Whisk soup over moderately high heat until it is thickened and boiling.
7. For each garnish, tie 3 tips into a bundle using a chive. Peel and halve the shallots length-wise. Blanch them for about 5 minutes in boiling, salted water. (Plunging the asparagus bundles in cold water after blanching can keep them green.) Drain.
8. For each serving, arrange 3 shallot halves on top of each serving of soup. Place an asparagus bundle on top of each shallot cluster.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

It's always summer in Malaysia

by Lisa

Three and a half weeks and 16,000 miles later, I'm back. And way to go, Steph--posting twice in a month (and consecutively, at that!). Hmm, maybe we need to make it one of our resolutions to have a combined total of more than three posts per month...

With limited internet access overseas, I worked on this post offline. Jetlag is a good excuse to tidy up and upload this little guy.


Oh, Malaysia. You are full of tasty food. I have stuffed myself on your laksa, curry, roti, wonton noodles, cendol, pulut, and gwei. (And even as I write this I haven't yet had Hainanese Chicken Rice or Hokkein Mee. Poor me, I know.)

Our family goes back every few years; my parents were born and raised here and all their family is still here. And even though I'm somewhat familiar with this place and sometimes even call it home, I have certainly spent only a small percentage of my life here. Yet now I see how deeply ingrained in me is the culture. In fact, I imagine it's quite possible that my love for food comes from my Malaysian blood. When someone asks where the post office is, my aunt responds, "Oh, it's by that good wonton noodle place." I laugh, because this is the place where locations that are stationary (the post office, the market, the travel agency) are posited in relation to tiny little food stands.

It's unfortunate that most of the things I've eaten or helped to cook here can't be reproduced the same back in California. I could tell you to ask your uncle to cut down some sugarcane in his backyard for you to chew on--but I'm afraid that would be less fruitful(!) for you than it was for me.

After cutting down some sugarcane and its purple cousin bamboo cane (used in teas), my uncle also uprooted a few cassava plants so that we could boil the roots to eat. This is the plant from which we get tapioca; it's similar to sweet potato (but chewier), and can be eaten savory (with soy sauce) or sweet (steamed with sugar and served with coconut milk).

Talk about do-it-yourself. Growing up, my mom--an excellent cook, I might add--often made nasi lemak (coconut rice) for us, and I knew I enjoyed the stuff. But what I didn't know was that coconut milk she used from the can was a substitute for the real stuff we couldn't get at home--the stuff that came squeezed through a cheesecloth straight from--well, almost straight from--the coconut. So, here, with a pandan leaf picked from the garden, tied into a knot, and thrown into the rice pot with a pinch of salt to bring the flavors out we were set.

But really, despite all this good food people here make, no one can beat the nonmanmade stuff. (God, you rule.) It is so much easier to bear the heat and humidity when you realize that if it weren't for the tropical weather, you would be without such delicious fruits. Soursop, mangostein (my favorite), durian (not exactly my favorite), custard apples, jackfruit and chempedak, water apples (as I call them, but in Malay they are jambu air - which means, literally, "guava water"). Sweet, juicy, flavorful, crunchy, different. I love them all. One that I tried for the first time is pink dragonfruit. The plant's flower blooms for only one night, and it almost comes to the size of a small soccer ball; they say the fruit will follow in about 30 days. My aunt has a plant in her garden and we were lucky to catch a whole bunch of them in bloom, right around nine in the evening.

The fruit inside is ridiculously hot pink; the unnatural color would probably give rise to hesitance to try it--the plant's mode of protection, probably, but don't believe it, because it is so divine. Almost like a cross between kiwi and papaya (a funny description, I admit), its mild, sweet taste that's not too sugary makes it dangerous: don't leave me in front of a plateful if you want some, too. (Sorry for all the run-ons, but, really, there's no place for pausing when I'm writing about pink dragonfruit.)

Lastly, I had my fill of kaya, a most amazing, heavenly coconut jam. Made from eggs, coconut milk, and sugar, it is slowly stirred for hours over low heat. My mom makes the best, but she never would give me the recipe, claiming that I didn't have time to do so much stirring. (It makes me wonder if she just wants to keep the family secrets from me.) Years ago, I had resolved to learn how to make it when I had the time. And after a few weeks of unwinding in Malaysia, new graduate that I am, it donned on me that this is the time! Being school- and jobless can't be too bad if it means I have time to make kaya! I'm not yet back at my own kitchen, but please, please, please don't let me get through the spring without finishing at least one pot. I promise to share.


While on the trip, I thought long and hard about what recipes I could share. But it's difficult, really a challenge. You have to come here yourself. So here's my best: --But first, for the non-food related item of this post. My adorable little niece. (Well, cousin's daughter, but it's all the same.)

Finally, the recipe--it's cheesy, I know. (First the sonnet, now this, you'll be thinking.)

Authentic Malaysian Food
Time: 2-4 weeks, more if you have it.

wonderful friends and/or family
less than a thousand U.S. dollars (for airfare)

a few ringgit (for food)

Take a flight to Kuala Lumpur and make sure you have wonderful people on the other end to take care of you. Add a few ringgit for meals at the best hawker centers. Enjoy!

Okay, okay, I'll throw in a real, albeit imprecise, recipe.

Coconut Rice

a few cups long-grained white rice (make more than you would per person if you were making regular rice; it's just so good)
1 can coconut milk water needed to bring rice to the right level (after addition of milk)
1 teaspoon salt
pandan leaves, if you have them; pandan essence can do the trick, too (both are optional)

We use the rice cooker. You can soak the rice for 30 minutes prior to cooking but it's not absolutely necessary. Throw in the can of coconut milk. Add a teaspoon or so of salt. I usually don't add enough, so, I guess, don't be afraid to add too much. Basically, add more than your instincts tell you--err, if you have instincts are normally good. Add pandan if you have it. Push the start button. Fluff with serving spoon when finished. Serve traditionally as nasi lemak with sambal, hardboiled eggs, ikan bilis, roasted peanuts, fried chicken, beef rendang, cucumbers, etc. Or, of course, there's nothing wrong with just eating it on its own.