HOISIN EXPLOSION

Last week I finished my third year of Mandarin, a challenging but rewarding journey!   To celebrate, I prepared a Chinese recipe for our dinner.   Cookbooks and websites sometimes mistreat ethnic cuisines: too often it’s  enough to finish a stir-fry with some soy sauce, cornstarch and then label it Chinese.   For the alternate, informed approach I reached for  Barbara Tropp, who was to Chinese cooking what Julia Child was to French cuisine: she studied it to the point of becoming an expert, and shared her knowledge through excellent writing.    Barbara Tropp’s “Modern Art of Chinese Cooking”  is a culinary masterpiece like no other on the subject, and if you have genuine interest in learning to prepare authentic Chinese dishes, you’ll need this book.

Here is what Tropp said about the recipe I chose:

Subtly sweet and rich, with a classic contrast of velvety chicken, slippery-crisp vegetables and crunchy nuts, it combines every technique you need to know to produce elegant, restaurant-style stir-frys. The taste explosion that makes this dish so appealing is a multi-regional affair.  Hoisin is a predominantly north Chinese condiment, chili is a Szechwanese touch, while wine used as it is here is an Eastern taste.”

I love it when a cookbook writer goes beyond providing recipes.  I am still saddened by her unfortunate death  when she was only 53 years old.

HOISIN-EXPLOSION CHICKEN
(adapted from Barbara Tropp)

1 pound chicken breast, cut in bite size pieces
1 large egg white
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 tsp Kosher salt
4 cups water + 2 tsp peanut oil

1/2 cup whole blanched almonds or cashews
1 medium red bell pepper
6 ounces bamboo shoots, sliced
fresh cilantro leaves

Aromatics
2 tsp garlic, finely minced
1 Tablespoon minced ginger
1 Tablespoon finely minced green onions
1/4 tsp dried red chili flakes

Liquid seasoning
3 Tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 + 1/2 Tbs Chinese rice wine
2 tsp soy sauce

Mix the egg white, wine and salt and process until smooth and thick (30 to 60 seconds) in a food processor or blender.  Place the chicken in a bowl and add the egg white marinade over it, tossing well to completely coat the pieces. Refrigerate from 8 to 36 hours, the longer the better.

Toast the nuts in a 350F oven, or by gently frying them with a little bit of peanut oil on a non-stick skillet.  Do not allow them to burn. Reserve.

Cut the seeded red bell pepper into squares.  If using canned bamboo shoots, rinse them well and blanch for 10 seconds in boiling water – this will refresh their taste.  Cut in thin slices. The veggies and nuts can be prepared one day in advance. Mince the cilantro right before finishing the dish.

Combine all aromatics and mix well in a small bowl.  Mix all the liquid seasonings in another small bowl.  Reserve both.

Velveting the chicken:
Bring the water/oil to a simmer, do not allow it to go into full boil.  You want to see small bubbles forming around the rim of the water.  Stir the chicken to loosen the pieces slightly, and drop them in the water, stirring to separate them.   Simmer until they are about 80% cooked  – this should take about 20 seconds.  It’s important not to over cook the meat.  When in doubt, cook less.   Remove the pieces  to a plate with a slotted spoon.   Once velveted, the meat must be stir-fried right away.

Finishing the dish…
Heat a wok over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact.  Add 2 tablespoons of oil and swirl it to glaze the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one piece of bell pepper, add the peppers and the bamboo shoots to the pan, stir frying them briskly until they are evenly glossed with oil and heated through, about 1 minute.  Remove the vegetables to a dish.  Return the wok to the stove, add the remaining tablespoon of oil and swirl to coat the pan.  Add the aromatics, stir until fragrant, 15-20 seconds, add the liquid seasonings, and stir to combine.  Add the velveted chicken pieces and the vegetables, toss quickly to cook through, about 30 seconds.   Turn off the heat, add the nuts and the cilantro.   Adjust the seasoning and serve over white rice.

ENJOY!

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to print the recipe, click here

Comments: This recipe calls for an important step in the meat preparation for stir-frying: “velveting.”   Tempting as it might be to skip it, don’t do it: the improvement in the texture will shock you! You’ll use an extra pan and spend a few more minutes in the overall preparation, but it is a small price to pay for textural perfection.  Barbara Tropp’s recipes are quite detailed, often extending over several pages, which some people may find a bit excessive.   I have a small dry-erase board on which I write down a condensed version of the recipe to take to the kitchen.  Interestingly enough, I originally got the board to practice writing Chinese characters, so using it for Chinese cooking seems like a natural move… 😉

I’ve made this recipe with water chestnuts instead of bamboo shoots, snow peas in addition to bell peppers, and peanuts instead of cashews. You can adapt it to what you have available, as long as you preserve the basic techniques. Like all stir fry recipes, once the ingredients are prepared, the cooking happens at lightening speed,  which is music to my ears on busy weekdays…

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MELLOW BAKERS: MICHE POINT-A-CALLIERE

One more small step in the very long journey of the Mellow Bakers, working their way through Hamelman’s book Bread. I was looking forward to this one, a classic European-type bread, leavened exclusively by a whole-wheat sourdough starter.   The term “miche” means a very large, round loaf, and Point-a-Calliere  is its place of origin, the initial settlement that later would turn into Montreal.   To preserve the dimension of my waistline, I made mental apologies to Hamelman, and cut the recipe in half, turning it into a “demi-miche“…

Once a very stiff sourdough starter is prepared, the recipe is quite straightforward: mix high extraction whole-wheat flour with water, starter and salt, fold it two or three times over a 2.5 hour period, shape as a round loaf, let it rise for another 2.5 hours. It is a tricky dough to handle, very moist, it did not gain body until the last folding cycle.  The bread is then baked in a very hot oven, with steam during the initial stage of baking.

The recipe doesn’t mention anything about slashing the surface before baking, but I followed the footsteps of  my fellow bakers, and cut a few slashes on mine. However, they were barely noticeable when the loaf came out of the oven. This is a flattish bread, with reasonably open crumb – in fact, the crumb was a lot more airy than I expected from a bread with such a high proportion of whole wheat flour.

Great flavor, that should get better and better as the days go by. We shall put this statement to test in the next few days…. if my demi-miche can make it, that is… 😉

Check other Mellow Bakers’ take on this bread by following these links to Lien’s blog, Joanna’s, and our host Paul.

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A SIMPLE SALAD a la JACQUES PEPIN

Of all “master chefs” in the cooking world, Jacques Pepin is my favorite.  He is the kind of man I’d love to dine with:  gentle, authentic, and down to earth.  Reading his autobiography “The Apprentice”,  made me appreciate him even more.   Of course, his charming French accent is the icing on the cake.  😉

If his name wasn’t beneath this recipe, I wouldn’t have tried it because it seems a little strange.  Who in their right mind would fry a hard boiled egg?  Well, his mother did just that, during the hard years of the Second World War, and when I made it for our lunch, it was clear that her genes were the basis of Jacques’ skills in the kitchen:  the apple didn’t fall far from the tree!

PAN-CRISPED DEVILED EGGS ON FRENCH LETTUCES
(adapted from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper)

2 large eggs, hard boiled and peeled
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp chives, finely minced
1-2 Tbs milk
2 tsp yogurt
1 tsp white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1 T olive oil

Dressing
leftover egg yolk filling
3 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbs milk
2 tsp white wine vinegar
salt and pepper

Salad
mixed greens of your choice

Cut the boiled eggs in half lengthwise, remove the yolks and place them in a small bowl. Add all the ingredients for the filling, mashing it well to form a cream. Carefully fill each egg white half with the mixture, but do not overfill, make it exactly like the egg yolk would be. You will have excess filling that will be used as part of the dressing.

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil on a non-stick pan, and add the egg halves, cut side down. Sautee for 3-4 minutes, until golden. Reserve.

Make a dressing by mixing well all the ingredients. To serve, place the salad greens on a plate or serving bowl, drizzle some of the dressing and mix. Place the sauteed eggs on top, sprinkle a little more dressing, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: Some people dislike hard boiled eggs, or even fried eggs.   I love them all. The only thing that turns me off is uncooked egg white floating on top of my sunny-side-up eggs.  I hope that even a deviled-egg-hater might enjoy this preparation. The subtle crunchiness on the hard-cooked eggs gives it a bit of  substance, making the salad seem more filling. The use of the excess egg yolk filling as part of the dressing is a brilliant touch.  It’s a nice light lunch for those of you without high cholesterol issues (or with a prescription vial of a statin in the cupboard!).

For another tasty example of using sauteed hard boiled eggs, take a look at this post by Ilva, a proof that great cooks think alike! 😉

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PIERRE NURY’S RUSTIC LIGHT RYE: BOUGNAT

I’ve browsed the pages of Leader’s “Local Breads” countless times over the past year, but taking part in “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” challenge prevented me from indulging in many other bread books. Once the  challenge finished, I felt excited to attack other projects, but also somewhat paralyzed.   Not anymore: last weekend I dove into my first Local Breads recipe, a three-day project that led to a couple of delicious loaves of a rustic, toothsome bread.

PIERRE NURY’s RUSTIC LIGHT RYE
(from Local Breads)

Levain (sourdough starter)

45 g firm sourdough starter
50 g water
95 g bread flour
5 g whole wheat flour

Mix all the ingredients until they form a stiff dough, trying to incorporate all the flour into it. Place the dough in a container, marking its level with a tape or pen. Allow it to ferment at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours, until it doubles in volume. This recipe will make more levain than used in the bread.

Bread dough

400 g water
450 g bread flour
50 g rye flour
125 g levain
10 g salt

Pour the water into the bowl of a Kitchen Aid type mixer. Add the bread and rye flours, stir with a spatula until it begins to form a dough. Cover the bowl and let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Uncover the bowl, add the levain (only 125 g of it) and the salt, and start kneading with the dough hook on medium speed for 12-14 minutes, or until you have good gluten development (do a windowpane test). Transfer the dough to a slightly oiled bowl and keep it at room temperature for 1 hour. Scrape the dough into a floured surface and fold it a couple of times to induce gluten development. You can see how to fold the dough by clicking here. Repeat the folding again after 1 more hour. After the second folding cycle, let the dough rise for 1 to 2 hours at room temperature until doubled in volume. Transfer to the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.

After 14 hours, my dough looked like this….

“Shaping” and baking
Remove the dough from the fridge 3 hours before baking. Heat the oven to 450F and place a baking stone (or tiles) on the middle rack.

Heavily dust the counter with flour, scrape the dough onto the counter, and open it gently into a 10 inch square shape, trying not to deflate it too much. I like to mark the dimensions on the flour, to have an idea of how much to open the dough.

Transfer each piece to a rimless baking sheet covered with parchment paper, stretching the dough to about 12 inches long. Let it fall naturally, without worrying about a precise shape. If baking both loaves at the same time, separate them by at least 2 inches.

Bake with initial steam for 20 to 30 minutes, until a dark walnut color develops on the crust. Let the loaves cool on a rack for at least an hour before slicing.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

for a detailed discussion on this particular bread, visit this link

Comments: The recipe was quite involved and challenging, but the gods of Bread were on my side and things went smoothly.  A dough with this much water (in baker’s terms it’s called a high hydration ratio) is tricky to deal with, but extra flour on the work surface helps. As some of the bakers in The Fresh Loaf put it “it feels like you’re making pancakes” when transferring the “bread” to the baking sheet. It’s impossible to shape it, so don’t even try. Lift it, gently stretch it  (it will almost stretch itself as it’s lifted), place it on the baking sheet and transfer it to the oven.   It’s a delight to witness its impressive oven spring (yet another fancy term to indicate that the dough rises a lot during baking).

The crumb almost made me shed a few tears… I know, I know… it’s pathetic, but bread make’s me emotional!  (In a good way.)  😉

I am submitting this post to Yeastspotting….

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FLIRTING WITH ORZO

My Brazilian nature often predisposes me towards rice, but the more I cook orzo, the more I like it.   It might be more versatile than rice,  it cooks faster, and it’s  absolutely fool proof, all of which adds to its charm. The inspiration for this recipe came from an old Fine Cooking magazine, but I simplified it quite a bit  because the original seemed a tad too busy:  too many flavors fighting for attention.   This pared-down version was a winner!


ORZO WITH SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS AND SPINACH
(very loosely adapted from Fine Cooking magazine)

1 cup orzo
2 Tbs olive oil
1 shallot, finely diced
8 oz spinach leaves, stemmed, and coarsely chopped
4 oz fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced (or dried, reconstituted with hot water)
1/2 lemon, juice and zest
salt and pepper
parmiggiano-reggiano (optional)

Start cooking the orzo on a large pot with salted water (it should take around 9 minutes).
Heat the olive oil on a large skillet and saute the shallots, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.  Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms, saute until they start to get golden brown.   Add the chopped spinach, cook until it begins to wilt.  At this point, if the orzo is not cooked yet, turn the heat off and reserve.

When the orzo is almost cooked, remove 1/4 cup of the cooking water and reserve it.   Turn the heat back to medium on the skillet with the spinach mix, squirt lemon juice and zest, season with salt and pepper.  Drain the orzo and add it to the skillet, mixing well.  Add some of the pasta water if necessary.  Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.  If desired, sprinkle parmiggiano-reggiano on top.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: For years I’ve made quick pan sauces for pasta with  the cooking water and some sauteed veggies.  Spinach is a constant player in such dishes, but this was the first time I chopped the leaves before sauteeing.   Voila‘:  it was much better!  Somehow, even with baby spinach, the whole leaves had a tendency to clump instead of reaching a nice distribution.   Live and learn.   😉

This was a quick dish to put together! It will drop into my regular rotation of meals for busy weeknights, keeping the orzo/spinach/lemon foundation and playing with other options: black olives, sundried tomatoes, roasted red bell pepper, artichoke hearts….

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