Friday, November 25, 2011

Chicken Chow Mein

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It might sound dorky but I've loved chicken chow mein since I was a little kid.  It was the first "exotic" food we ever had as take-out.  I liked the little white boxes with metal handles but what really sold me was the transluscent paper bag of crunchy noodles.  Chow mein is not chow mein without the crunchy noodles.  I now realize that most takeout chow mein is green goo with little bits of diced meat on the top so I was happy to find a healthy and updated version a few years ago.  In this recipe, the flavors are vibrant and the overall texture is very crunchy from crisp-tender celery, onions, and water chestnuts. Did I mention the shiitake mushrooms? Gourmet chow mein, indeed.

It might seem odd to post a chow mein recipe during the holidays but you can't eat cookies and fruitcake every day for the next month, right?  Do your body a favor and give it something healthy to eat every once in a while.  Six ounces of chicken for four servings doesn't sound like much, but chow mein has lots of vegetables too.  I think you'll be surprised at really how much chicken there is per serving when you're done - much more than in the takeout versions. 

If you haven't made many stir fries from scratch you might not be familiar with oyster sauce and dark sesame oil.  Both are readily available in the Asian section of your grocery store and give the sauce wonderful flavor so don't be tempted to leave them out.  Just be aware that sesame oil comes in two varieties - regular which is pale in color like other oils, and toasted which is dark in color.  The flavors are completely different.  The toasted variety may or may not say "toasted" on the label, so the most reliable way to know is simply to look at the color.

Left to right in the photo above you see oyster sauce, regular sesame oil, and toasted sesame oil.  Oyster sauce is very thick and dark with a mild flavor that I can't describe, you just have to try it. (But it doesn't taste like oysters.)  Regular sesame oil also has a mild flavor and is so pale it almost looks clear in the little glass bowl above.  Toasted sesame oil is much stronger with a rich nutty aroma and flavor, and it's always used sparingly in recipes for that reason.  If  I come across a recipe that specifies sesame oil but not the specific variety, I make a decision regarding which they intended based on the amount called for - toasted sesame oil is rarely specified in amounts greater than a teaspoon or two.  If you're intimidated by the unfamiliar ingredients, don't be.  They come together in a very tasty sauce and you would never guess the specific ingredients.

Like all stir fries, once you start cooking everything goes fast and you can't stop, so prep all your ingredients in advance.  The whole recipe takes maybe a half hour to prepare from start to finish with most of the time spent slicing ingredients, so this could be a great weeknight meal.

Chicken Chow Mein

serves 4

Note: prep all ingredients in advance – cooking goes really fast once you start.

½ cup low-sodium chicken broth
3 T. oyster sauce
1 T. dark soy sauce, plus more for the table
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, about 6 ounces, cut into thin 2” long strips
1 teaspoon dark (toasted) Asian sesame oil
2 T. peanut oil
1 heaping tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
3 cloves of garlic, minced
4 scallions, white and green minced, divided
black pepper
½ medium yellow onion, thin sliced
2 stalks of celery, thin sliced on the diagonal
10 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps thin sliced
1/3 cup thin sliced canned water chestnuts
6 ounce bag of chow mein (rice) noodles
6 ounces fresh bean sprouts

Whisk together the chicken broth, oyster sauce, soy sauce, cornstarch, and sugar in a small bowl and set aside. Season the chicken with the dark sesame oil, salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat. Heat the two tablespoons of peanut oil until hot, then add the ginger, garlic and one minced scallion and stir fry for 30 seconds. Add the chicken and stir fry until lightly browned, about 90 seconds. Add the onion, celery and mushrooms and stir fry until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the water chestnuts and spread the ingredients to the outside of the pan to make a well in the center. Pour the chicken broth mixture into the well, bring to a boil, and stir to coat all ingredients. Remove from the heat and season generously with black pepper.

Place approximately one cup of chow mein noodles on each plate, then top with the chow mein mixture, bean sprouts, and remaining green onions.  Serve with additional soy sauce, if desired.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Essential Foodie Gifts Under $20

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Thinking about holiday gifts?  I was cooking something with lemon zest the other day and thought about how much I like my microplane zester, so it occurred to me to do a blog post about favorite kitchen tools that are beyond the basic measuring cups and spoons but not so exotic that you only use them once or twice a year (like olive pitters and blow torches). To make it a little more interesting I decided they had to be under $20.  I enlisted the help of my foodie friends Ted and Brad to come up with the following list and did a couple of recon visits to my local kitchenware store as well as Bed, Bath and Beyond to make sure they fit the $$ limit.

Each of these would be a nice gift for your favorite foodie if you know they don't currently own said item.  They would also be a good hostess gift or (better yet) a nice gift for yourself.  I always like the gifts I give myself because I never have to take them back.  :-)  I was having lunch with my friends Michelle and Jessica the other day and Jessica mentioned that she had made a salmon recipe.  Michelle commented that she would never make a salmon recipe because she didn't like salmon, although she's never actually tasted salmon.  We went on to discuss another recipe and I asked her if she has a food processor.  She wasn't sure but thought she might have a hand crank one ("hand crank food processor"?  I mean, really.)  Anyway, I think I need to take Michelle on a little shopping trip so she can pick up a few items.

So in no particular order, here we go.

Kitchen Scale
There are many recipes that call for one or more ingredients by weight rather than volume because it's more precise.  For example, how many tomatoes equal two pounds?  Depends on the size of the tomatoes, of course.  Without a scale you're just guessing.  What to look for:  a small, simple scale that's easy to store.  I've seen scales with an attached bowl, for example, that I wouldn't recommend.  The size and shape of your food won't always work in that particular bowl and it's bulkier to store.  The scale that I show above will zero out the weight of whatever empty bowl you put on it, so it just weighs the ingredients.  You can use whatever bowl works best.  Slick!

Citrus Juicer
I love citrus, particularly lemon, and use a lot in cooking.  I think I've tried pretty much every juicer there is.  Years ago I had one of those brightly-colored hinged gadgets where you put a half a lemon inside and squeeze it together.  It basically turns the lemon inside-out.  I didn't like it because it didn't work very well, you had to have different sizes for different-sized citrus, and it required a lot of hand strength.  Then I bought the simple juicer shown above and used it for years.  You hold the juicer in your weaker hand (the left hand for us righties) and the fruit in your other hand.  Stick the pointy end into the fruit and work it around while you squeeze with your strong hand.  Works great, it's simple, and easy to store.  The only drawback is that you need a bowl to catch the juice, and either a strainer on top of the bowl or a spoon to fish out the seeds.

This little beauty solves the bowl and seed issues.  You just jam the cut fruit down on the top and use the cutting board as your counter-pressure.  It comes apart easily and goes in the dishwasher.  I've also seen hard plastic versions of this same concept which have the advantage of being able to see the amount of juice in the bowl.  I would recommend either this juicer or the simple wooden one above but not the hinged variety.

Meat Thermometer

First and foremost, you need a meat thermometer for food safety but it also ensures you don't overcook your beautiful roast or turkey and turn it into cardboard.  Last year I asked The Brother how he knows when his turkey is done since he doesn't have a meat thermometer, and he replied "we guess".  Oh boy.  I was over at my foodie friend Brad's house a few weeks ago for Gourmet Club and noticed that he used not one, but TWO meat thermometers to check a rolled stuffed pork roast to ensure he didn't accidentally hit the stuffing instead of the meat.  Good idea.  Ted takes his thermometer on road trips to his daughter's house.  Another good idea.  Get a good quality thermometer and don't leave it in the meat when you put it back in the oven or the plastic face will melt.  Trust me.

Straight Edge Stirrer

Brad calls this a "flat bottom stirrer" but somehow that sounded somewhat provocative to me so I call it a straight edge stirrer.  Whatever, it's used to scrape the bottom of the pan to release meat bits and incorporate them into an ensuing sauce.  I also use it to scramble eggs and other pan scraping/stirring tasks.

Citrus Zester
This could be my all-time favorite gadget.  Microplane had the brilliant idea to create a kitchen version of what is essentially a carpenter's rasp, and it works like magic to zest citrus.  The holes are small and their edges are sharp, resulting in fast, effortless and perfect zest without any of the bitter white pith.  Microplane also makes different sizes for grating cheeses, etc. and the cover of each states what they should be used to grate. They are simply the best. 

Meat Tenderizer/Pounder

Meat tenderizers are used to pound meat or poultry to make them an even thickness for cooking and to tenderize the meat.  The one I show above is not the most common variety.  The most common variety looks a lot like a two-headed hammer with one flat side and one side with jagged teeth.  I had one of those once, and tried the jagged teeth side on chicken breasts that were covered with plastic wrap (you always cover the meat with plastic before pounding).  The teeth tore up both the plastic and the chicken, resulting in a mess.  I decided I needed a pounder without teeth and with as large a pounding surface as I could find for efficiency.  Hence the version above.  I call it "The Whammer".


You'll find this particular gadget in the Asian section of your kitchen store near the woks.  It will be called a spider, although I think it actually looks more like a spider web.  You can also find all-stainless versions in the kitchen utensil aisle, in which case it will be called a skimmer.  (Don't ask.)  In either event, this is your go-to tool for taking things out of liquid.  For example, I saw a chef on Food TV use this exact item to take blanched beans out of boiling water and put them into ice water.  I drop tomatoes into boiling water for a few seconds to make them easier to peel and use my spider to take them out one at a time.  It's also perfect for taking meat out of a wok so you can cook the vegetables and then put the meat back in.  You get the idea.  What to look for - a rounded (bowl-shaped) mesh head rather than a flat head so it cups the food you're scooping.  Think tomatoes.

I hope these gave you some holiday gift ideas!  If you have any questions or other favorite gadgets that you would add, drop me a comment below.  Back to recipes next week!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pumpkin Spice Pancakes

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Weekend breakfasts are a great time to sip on a big cup of coffee and make something special for your family, especially when it turns cold outside.  These pumpkin pancakes are one of my favorites for several reasons - the pumpkin makes them rich and moist while the spices perfume your entire house.  Everything about them says that it's fall and the leaves are blowing off the trees and it's time to get the sweaters out of the closet.  If you take the time to mix the dry ingredients the night before, all you do in the morning is mix in the wet ingredients just like you were using a packaged mix (except it tastes much better!).
Tip of the day - freeze any leftover pancakes in a single layer on a cooling rack in the freezer until frozen solid, then pile them into a large ziplock bag.  They won't stick together so you can take out as many as you want at a time.

Mike the Wonder Dog was particularly fond of pancakes.  The major mistake that we made early on was to feed him leftovers of people food so he was attracted to our table by the smells.  With those little dinky dogs (I call them "snack dogs" because they're usually the size of a sub sandwich) that's not a problem, but when your dog is taller than the table it can be problematic.  Mike was an Irish Wolfhound.  For those of you not familiar with the breed, it's the largest dog breed in the world.  Mikey weighed 160 pounds and measured 8 feet from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail.  I'll dig up a picture and post it soon.  Mike (or as we occasionally called him, "Young Frankenstein") has been gone now for over eight years but we'll certainly never forget him and some of his exploits.  More some other time!

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Pumpkin Spice Pancakes
Makes approximately 14-15 pancakes

Note: the dry ingredients (flour through salt) may be mixed the night before, then proceed with the rest of the recipe in the morning.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1-1/2 cups milk
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 egg
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons white vinegar

Maple syrup and toasted chopped pecans (optional garnish)

Combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, and salt) in a medium bowl, whisking to mix well. Add the brown sugar and mix again. In a large bowl, mix together the milk, pumpkin, egg, oil and vinegar. Add the dry ingredients to the large bowl and stir just enough to combine.

Cook on a preheated (350d) griddle or lightly oiled frying pan on medium-high heat. Note that the pancakes may take slightly longer to cook than normal due to the moistness of the pumpkin puree – watch for the bubbles to burst on the top of the pancakes, then they’re ready to flip (approximately 4 minutes per side).

Serve with pure maple syrup and toasted pecans (optional).

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Best Cranberry Relish

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Far be it for me to mess with anyone's Thanksgiving traditions, but would you be open to one tiny change?  I consider this cranberry relish to be my signature Thanksgiving dish, if there is such a thing.  It's light years away from that jellied stuff that comes out of the can with indentations from the can ridges.  It has a bright, fresh, tart flavor that goes so well with turkey, it's amazing.  It's also wonderful with roast pork, chicken, duck, etc. and makes an excellent sandwich the day after Thanksgiving with leftover turkey.  I've even had it on toast with peanut butter and it was great.

The interesting part is that the cranberries aren't cooked.  How can that be?  Cranberries are little rocks, right?  I think marinating in the refrigerator with the tangerine and sugar softens them.  Whatever, it works.  The other interesting part is that you use the entire tangerine, peel and all (except the seeds).  The net effect is outstanding. If you can't find a tangerine, an orange works just as well. An advantage is that it needs to be made in advance so it's one less thing to do on The Day and it only takes about five minutes to prepare.  Please give it a try this Thanksgiving!

* * click here for a printable recipe version * *

Cranberry Tangerine Relish
Makes about 3 cups

 Note:  you will find crystallized ginger in the produce section of most grocery stores.

1 12-oz bag fresh cranberries, rinsed
1 6-oz tangerine, rinsed, unpeeled, halved, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
¾ cup sugar
½ cup coarsely chopped crystallized ginger (about 2 ½ ounces)
¼ cup orange marmalade

In a food processor, coarsely chop cranberries using pulse button.  Transfer to a medium bowl.  Do the same coarse chop to the tangerine and combine add to the cranberries.  Mix in the other ingredients.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  (May be made up to three days in advance.)  Serve cold or at room temperature.