High Low: 2014 Horses Wear Red

High Low: 2014 Horses Wear Red

IMG_35482014 in the Chinese Zodiac is the year of Horse. In my family there are three generations of Horses — my mother (1930), me (1966), and my son (2002). I don’t live by all the superstitions around the Western and Eastern zodiac practices. It’s fun to follow and I believe, a little guidance in any form is always useful.

The last year of the Horse (2002), I was living  in Shanghai. I had been there for about four years and had become accustomed to the Eastern medicine and practices through my friend, food translator, and professor at the Eastern Medicine University, Mr. Huang. He is heavily mentioned in my food memoir “How To Cook A Dragon: Living, Loving, and Eating In China.”

Soon after my son was born, Mr. Huang prescribed a broth recipe to hydrate and replenish nutrients to my body for round-the-clock feedings. His recipe involved making a stock using organic chicken that is cooked down until the tiny tendons, bones, and cartilage is melted down. It was also  rich in ginger and Chinese rice wine. He told me champagne did a similar thing if I didn’t have time to make a batch. Now that’s my kind of prescription.

He reveled in the auspiciousness of a Horse mother giving birth to a Horse child in the year of the Horse. To honor this lucky sequence of events, he made me promise that I wear something red every day until the next new year.

I did accumulate quite a bit of red jewelry and accessories. Did the daily dose of red  protect me?  I remember it being a very tough year. If anything, seeing the colorful flashes of crimson on my wrist or feet or around my neck and making the point of choosing and putting them on everyday was a ritual and reminder of the beauty of optimism, thankfulness, and symbolic affirmation.

Kitchen Dragon: Chores

IMG_3474Knife Sharpening

Whetstone, water, and a cup of tea to sip.

 

 

Kitchen Dragon: New Years Redux

IMG_3489

Japanese Snack

There are a few traditional Japanese foods such as mochi (gooey pounded sticky rice) and natto (odiferous fermented soybeans) that upon tasting their unique flavors (the mochi, bland) and textures (the natto, slimy and smelling like gym socks), I recoil for a second. The characteristics that repel me then trigger happy memories from my childhood and the wonderful dishes my mother cooked.   One of my favorite Japanese foods is a snack called gomame, which is made with fried whole baby sardines, called niboshi, and coated in a mixture of  sugar, mirin and soy sauce.

IMG_3481

Yes, the little sardine heads are intact, but the umami flavor bomb makes up for the squeamish aspects.  Its chewy, sweet, salty, and soy flavor combination has me eating them one after another like popcorn. And it’s a good-for-you food. A single serving has about 23 grams of protein and loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron and potassium.

Primarily a snack served with drinks, it’s simple to make. First, you start by roasting the sardines in a hot, dry pan. This releases the mellow smoky fish flavor and adds crispness.

When brought to a boil, the sugar, soy sauce, and mirin thickens to a syrup-like consistency. The dried fish takes on a chewy texture when coated with the sweet glaze.

Growing up, my mother made this dish once a year on New Years Day. On this holiday, she cooked an array of simmered vegetables; delicate seafood rolled in seaweed, and steamed seafood with sweet vinegar dipping sauces. Thoughtful and elegant, she presented these auspicious dishes in red, black, and gilded lacquered boxes called jubako.

This dish appeared again when I was living in China. In some places in Asia, it was offered as a bar food similar to our chicken wings and fried mozzarella sticks. Now, I like to enjoy them while sipping an ice cold IPA. Fish-heads and all, eating this unique food around the Japanese and Chinese New Year brings me gratitude to the past, present, and the future.

 

Japanese Glazed Sardines

1 cup niboshi (dried baby sardines)sold in Asian grocery storesIMG_3478

4 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce

5 tablespoon cane sugar

1 teaspoon mirin

In a clean, dry skillet, roast sardines over a medium high flame until sardines release a smoky fish odor (about 3 minutes).  Continuously shake the pan to prevent the sardines from scorching.  Remove from flame and  set aside.

In a small sauce pan, heat the soy sauce, can sugar, and mirin. Stir until all the sugar has dissolved, then bring to a boil and remove from heat. Allow to cool for about fifteen minutes.

Place the fish in a small mixing bowl, pour the mixture over the dry fish and with chopsticks begin to slowly and deliberately mix the fish with the glaze. The glaze will thicken as it cools. Continue mixing until each piece of fish is thoroughly coated with the glaze and the mixture becomes sticky and stiff.

Place in a clean bowl or serving dish and serve immediately.   Enjoy!

Kitchen Dragon: My Darling Sweet Potato

 

IMG_3238

When the winter sky is an unforgiving gunmetal gray, nothing is as unappetizing to me as dark colored food. I love a hearty stew as much as the next person, but the brownness of it, even with carrots and pearl onions peeking in the murk, reminds me of winter’s melancholy early sunsets and that heavy indigo haze when the sky reflects off the icy snow.

During this time of the year, my appetite craves the glow of a grilled salmon with a hearty dollop of mango, cilantro, and pineapple salsa. Or even better, a saffron risotto with an arrangement of oven roasted parsnips, carrots, and beets. And any  side dish using my darling sweet potatoes.

When cooked correctly sweet potatoes are as creamy as cheesecake. I would devour them by the bushel even if they weren’t loaded with healthy beta-carotene.

My mother transferred her love of these tubers on to me during my childhood in the 70s. Tasting more like a pumpkin or acorn squash, the sweet potato flavor reminded her of kabocha or Japanese pumpkin. Simmering the ochre tubers with a little soy sauce, mirin, and sugar until soft made a suitable substitute for the foods of her homeland.

I recall a close family friend gave my mother a Midwest sweet potato recipe using brown sugar, butter, and salt. My mother had a cast iron skillet, the American version of a well-seasoned wok, which she used to prepare the sweet potatoes pieces into caramelized, sticky goodness.  This side dish was served with baked ham when my dad wanted a change from the usual Japanese fare.

In the fall of 2008, I concocted my own sweet potato recipe after returning home from a cross-country cycling trip.  As my fellow bikers and I pedaled across the United States during the five-week tour, we stayed in a different town every night and sampled the local cuisine. In Tennessee, I was served a local sweet potato as big as on of my Sidi bike shoes. The skin was roasted to the texture of crisp paper and peeled easily from the flesh of the potato. The middle, split like a canyon crevasse, was crammed with roasted pecans, butter, and brown sugar, the flavor and texture was inspiring. I can only handle so much butter and brown sugar, so the version I made included fresh ingredients, a dash of Asia, and some heat. My take on that luscious nutty flavored southern dish incorporates honey roasted peanuts, sirracha, cilantro, and crunchy cucumbers and carrots.

In the wintertime that first bite of any sweet potato warms my chilled bones with images of my Mom’s cast iron skillet and the verdant rolling hills of Tennessee.

IMG_3245

Baked Sweet Potato with Asian Toppings
Choose sweet potatoes that are firm and without cracks and soft spots. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to oven roast my sweet potatoes, rather than using the microwave. For a smoky southern touch, substitute the peanuts with pecans. The dressing for the vegetables should lightly flavor, not saturate.

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon Asian sesame oil, or more to taste

5 teaspoons rice vinegar
salt and pepper
1 cup bean sprouts
1 cup daikon, julienne sliced
1 cup carrots, julienne sliced
2 teaspoons white sesame seeds, roasted
2 large sweet potatoes, roasted until easily penetrated with a fork
2 teaspoons low sodium soy sauce
½ cup honey roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
Vietnamese hot sauce
6 fresh cilantro sprigs, stems trimmed
2 lime wedges

1. In a small bowl, combine rice vinegar, sesame oil and sugar until sugar dissolves. Add salt and pepper to taste.
2. In a larger bowl, combine bean sprouts, daikon, carrots and sesame seeds toss with rice vinegar, sesame oil, and sugar dressing. Set aside.
3. Using a knife, split the sweet potatoes and pull back the skin. Using a fork loosen the flesh. Trickle on one teaspoon of soy sauce to each sweet potato. Sprinkle the peanuts evenly between the potatoes. Add the bean sprout, daikon, and carrot salad. Squirt a few drops of hot sauce, add more to taste. Top with cilantro sprigs and squeeze lime wedges over the top before serving.

Serves 2

IMG_3271

Easy Caramelized Sweet Potatoes

2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2″ x 1″ long piecesIMG_3258

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup water

1. In a cast iron skillet, heat olive oil and butter over a medium-high flame. Add sweet potato pieces to the skillet. Allow to cook until one side of the sweet potato pieces is deep brown.

2. Sprinkle brown sugar and sea salt on top of the sweet potato pieces. Add water to the skillet and cover with lid. Cook for 5 – 7 minutes. Pierce the potato with a fork, which should slide in easily when done. Check the skillet occasionally, if undercooked, add more water and cover with lid. And allow to cook for additional two minutes.

3. To caramelize, cook over a medium flame until liquid is reduced to a sticky coating. Transfer into a serving dish and serve immediately.

4 servings

 

 

 

 

Umami Mommy: Chicken Dumplings

My favorite dumpling!

My favorite dumpling!

 

I am a self proclaimed Umami Mommy! This is my moniker for being an overachieving foodie mom who works at making that perfect tasty concoction for their kid. I fail as often as I succeed, but when I get it right, I think, “ahh, my work is done.”

Truthfully, this endeavor would be a cinch if I was making the foods I love to eat! Instead, it becomes a culinary treasure hunt. For example, my son mentioned he was ready to try chili. In my warped Umami Mommy mind, I know the taste combination he would love. It’s a recipe that isn’t too spicy, too out there in ingredients, and has a slight institutional quality like the chili from my school cafeteria back in the 70s. So now I have to find it.

My frozen dumpling business began innocently as a Umami Mommy project when I wasn’t satisfied with store bought dumplings. I learned to make zhaozi and xiaolongbao when I lived in Shanghai, so I thought, why not make my own. I crafted my own wrappers and filling and the next thing I know I’m selling them to friends, then packaging and stocking them in my area stores. Now I have a frozen dumpling business, but that’s another story.

So the other day, my son asked me to make homemade chicken dumplings. After making hundreds of them a week for years, it’s not one of my most favorite things to do on a Saturday morning. But after cooking up a big breakfast, walking Ginger out in the field, vacuuming upstairs and downstairs, and folding and putting away clean laundry, I made a batch…for old times sake.

And that Umami Mommy chili recipe will be posted soon…until then enjoy this!

Crisp golden brown veneer finish of skillet fried chicken dumplings ala Umami Mommy

Crisp golden brown veneer finish of skillet fried chicken dumplings ala Umami Mommy 

Dumpling Wrappers and Chicken Filling

Flour DoughIMG_3165
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup lukewarm water

Chicken Filling Ingredients
1/4 lb. ground chicken
1 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped water chestnuts

2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine or cooking sherry
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon ginger, minced

Prepare Flour Dough: In a medium-size bowl add the flour, and then add the water. Combine the mixture using your fingers. Gather the dough into a ball and turn out on a generously floured board. Knead for about three or four minutes or until the dough appears smooth. The dough should be firm, but not flaky and hard. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

Prepare Filling: In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients. Mix with clean hands, squeezing mixture until the meat and ingredients are thoroughly combined. Set aside the meat filling.

Rolling out the wrappers: With clean hands roll the ball of dough out into a thick 9-inch long cylinder. Cut the cylinder width-wise into twelve pieces. Set each piece in a row with end down on the cutting board. Sprinkle lightly with flour.

On a floured board, using a wooden dowel (a short wooden rolling pin about 2 – inches in diameter) to roll one piece to a 3 1/4-inch circle. Place a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of the circle. Close by pleating the ends.

Kitchen Dragon: Meatloaf Before Elvis

IMG_3025I saw Elvis Costello, the English singer-songwriter, when he recently performed here in Burlington, Vermont. I admire his evolution from his days playing with The Attractions,  collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and his music interview tv show called Spectacle.  Without sounding like a starstruck groupie, I have a personal connection to one of his song “Shipbuilding.”

IMG_3074

Hot and sticky Florida was where I was spending my first summer having just moved back from China. My son was more than a year old and still on a routine of eating, playing and napping. Most of his routine revolved around the heat of the day.  Just around 4:00 pm when the sun tipped west there was a slight, but noticeable change in temperature and heat. Getting my year-old son to take his afternoon nap at this time was a chore. I tried walking him in the stroller, strapping him into a bouncy chair, one of those swinging chairs, and even blasting white noise. While running errands one afternoon, Costello’s “Shipbuilding” came on.  The haunting slow pace of  the song and the vibration of the car lulled my son to sleep. And this became an essential part of our afternoon ritual.

Some days he’d fall asleep at the first  chords and other times, I’d play the song six or seven times before his head drooped. Enclosed in a capsule reverberating with piano and trumpet chords  and the soft hum of the AC, I drove slowing through our neighborhood. Gazing back at my son in the rear view mirror, I watched him staring out the window transfixed by  the tropical landscape, manicured lawns and the palm trees swaying against a coral, blue, purple, and yellow smeared sky.

I began to look forward to these daily drives. I hadn’t caught up on my sleep since he was born and the slow drive’; hypnotic, repetitive music, and cool, contained setting was like resting without sleeping. I had the luxury of drifting through free flowing, uninterrupted thoughts. I thought about all kinds of things. Like piece of fluff carried by the wind,  I thought about my new life as a mother, where my relationship went wrong, the manuscript I was writing, and what it would feel like to keep driving and never stop.

My afternoon drives took place for weeks or maybe it was for months. Florida’s constant sunny weather has a way of distorting time and creating a sense that life is standing still. Absorbed in my own thoughts there were afternoons where  I’d keep driving and listening to “Shipbuilding” long after my son had fallen asleep. I’d awaken from my conscious reverie as my son woke from his slumber.

My son is ten now and days before attending the Costello performance we listen to “Shipbuilding” together.  I was curious to see if the song triggers any memory of that hazy summer in Florida. Head tilted towards the sound of the music, my son listened intently, then shook his head.  I, on the other hand, became spellbound.  At the first strikes of the piano chords, I was transported back to that car to that scattered time in my life. I heard the hum of the AC, smelled the car’s smoky leather upholstery, saw the blinding sunshine and felt a familiar heavy fatigue.  For a moment before the sensory connection breaks, I remember the person I was eight years ago, the uncertain and  exhausted, but optimistic new mother doing whatever she can to make it through another day.

IMG_3064

Recipe: Meatloaf

Nostalgia makes me hungry for comfort food. Here is my adaptation of a savory meatloaf from the test kitchen at Kikkoman. My version uses local ground chuck, farm fresh eggs, and onions. I like to serve my meatloaf drizzled with ketchup.

IngredientsIMG_3047

2 lbs. ground beef

2 cups panko crumbs

2/3 cup + 2 tablespoon Katsu sauce

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 small onion, chopped

2 green onion, chopped

2 eggs

Heat oven to 375 degree Farenheit. Combine ground beef, panko, 2/3 cup of katsu sauce, and eggs Shape into a loaf and place in a 9-inch loaf pan. In a small bowl mix the katsu and ketchup. Set aside. Bake for 50 minutes, then spread the katsu-ketchup mixture on top of the loaf. Cook for an additional ten minutes. Allow to cool for about five minutes before serving. Makes 6-8 servings

Kitchen Dragon: First Snow

 

First Snow November 2006

First Snow November 2006

I love the idea of new beginnings, wiping the slate clean, starting anew. I’ve spent much of my adult life in a constant state of transit. I started right after college with three years in D.C., another two in San Diego, San Francisco four years, Beijing two, back to San Fran for another two years, Shanghai four, and Florida 2two. I’ve been living in Vermont for seven years this November 2013.  It is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere.

The smell in the Vermont air reminds me of when I first arrived; a mellow aroma of burning wood, dried leaves, and cold, clean air heavy with moisture. The smell, the open spaces and landscape like you’d see in a Virginia Burton Lee picture book reminds me of where I grew up in Indiana. My quest to move here was simple. I wanted a good place to raise my son fueled by a desperation for a brand new start. I’ll never forget the day I arrived to my new life in the Green Mountains.

I was coming from sunny, warm Naples, Florida where two years transitioning back to American life after living in Shanghai for four years. My re-entry wasn’t only cultural, but a new and frightening frontier alone as a single mother of a toddler.  I felt like I had stepped out of a time machine where friends had moved, changed jobs, and had children.

Living in Florida, I worked tirelessly on my food memoir to distract me from my divorce and the scariness of raising an infant alone. Rather than resting with my baby son, I wrote everyday carving out time during morning and evening nap time and a late night writing schedule of 8:30 pm – 1:00 am. I held my breath hoping that my son would sleep through the night.

When I finished,  my agent Carol shopped the manuscript around to publishing houses for six months without no success. Calling me from California, she said bluntly, it wasn’t going to happen. My hopes were dashed but, I got up and dusted myself off. I equivocally decided I would move to Vermont. I could almost taste a place free of memories, associations, old haunts, and attachments to my former life. In Vermont, I’d figure out what to do with the book. Maybe shop it around myself. My rationale was half-baked and full of holes. I went for it anyway!

It was early October 2006 and my move South to North had to take place before the first snow. That November a week before Thanksgiving, I flew into Burlington airport and met the movers at my rental home in Charlotte, Vermont just before twilight as big fluffy snowflakes were beginning to fall like cottonwood.

Fresh from the moving truck, I got behind the wheel of my car blazoned with a colorful Florida sunset license plate and no snow tires. I drove  through white-out conditions to get to a friend’s home where I’d spend the night before unpacking my new home. From the passenger seat next to me, my dog Oscar looked at me with questioning eyes . Wearing thin leather loafers and socks, a  jacket for sixty-degree Southwest Florida weather and slipping and sliding in the snow shower conditions, panic suddenly gripped me and I thought, what am I doing?

Safely arriving at my friends’ home,  laughter, a warm fire, the safety of old friendships and a hearty meal awaited me. Feigning tiredness from the plane flight, I retired early and under the cover of thick quilts and a dark room I self-indulgently cried in Oscar’s nape.

My cell phone buzzed in my handbag. I was too cold to get out of bed, so I let the call go into voicemail. Cry over, I listened to the message. It was Carol. She said a small publishing house in California wanted to buy my story. Outside the frosted window, the pitch blackness that felt ominous and hopeless moments ago suddenly felt different. It was the same darkness but now it was all better. This was my new start.

Japanese Pizza or okinomiyaki

Japanese Pizza or okinomiyaki

First Dinner

I unpacked and prepared my rental house for the arrival of my nearly 3-year old son.  I experienced moments where I thought I had made a mistake and even now seven years later, I still do. Over the next year, it was the million dollar view of the Adirondacks right outside my picture window that would become my friend.

As I unpacked, I found dry Japanese ingredients: bonito flakes, dried kombu and fun Japanese condiments. All the things to make okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza) what I consider to be the ultimate comfort food.

The Recipe

Okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza)
This is a great recipe to use whatever leftover meat and vegetables you may have.

Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups dashi (instant or homemade)
1 egg, beaten
4 ounces ground pork (can also use shrimp, chicken, or octopus)
1/4 cup grated carrots
1/4 cup frozen peas
2 green onions chopped

Toppings and Condiments

okinomiyaki ingredients

okinomiyaki ingredients

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Mayonnaise (Kewpie brand, sold in Japanese grocers, has a pleasant sweetness and creaminess)
Sirracha
Tonkatsu Sauce

Japanese pizza toppings

Japanese pizza toppings

Dried bonito flakes
Red pickled ginger (sold minced in a jar)
Shredded nori (seaweed)

Instructions:
Sift the flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Add the dashi a trickle at a time, stirring until the batter is smooth. Fold the egg, meat or seafood, carrots, peas, and green onions into the batter.

Pour batter into a hot skillet. Flatten each with circular motions, spreading the batter thinly and evenly to make circles. If the pancakes are too thick, the texture will be doughy.Cook until bubbles appear in the middle of the pancakes and the edges are brown.Carefully flip the discs over and brush the browned side of each with the Worcestershire and soy sauce mixture. Continue cooking a minute longer, or until an aroma rises. Remove from pan.

On the side with the soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, drizzle to taste mayonnaise, tonkatsu sauce, and sirracha. Finish with a sprinkling of bonito flakes, red pickled ginger and shredded nori. Serve immediately.
Makes about 4 – 8″ large discs or 6 – 8 4″ small pizzas
Dashi (Bonito Fish Stock)

The kombu in dashi

The kombu in dashi

Ingredients:

3 cups of water
5-inch square of konbu (dried kelp)
1/3 cup katsuo (dried bonito flakes)

Instructions:

Gently wipe off the powdery white flakes on the dried kelp with a dry paper towel.

In a small saucepan, soak the kelp in the water for 30 minutes.

Watch the water as it heats up over a medium high flame. When bubbles begin to appear around the surface of the pan, remove the kelp and discard.

**Do not boil or overcook or the seaweed flavor will overwhelm the stock**

Add the dried bonito flakes. As soon as the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat. Leave the flakes in the water until the flakes sink to the bottom of the pan.

Strain the fish flakes through a metal strainer or tight weave cheesecloth. Discard the bonito flakes and set the fish stock aside.
Makes 2 servings

Reverie: The Signs of Autumn

IMG_2881

View from ShelburneThe Signs of Autumn:
- Unstacked wood piles.
- Craving smoky, braised meat.
- Plastic tubs containing apple cider donuts crusted with sugar and cinnamon.
- Uncut Hydrangeas drying on the stem.
- Mice scratching in the walls.
- Sunlight setting low in the horizon casting long shadows and rays of white light.
- A less welcoming morning sun arriving later and later like a disinterested friend.
- Pulling butter soft leather jackets and sturdy boots from storage.