Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Rapturous NYC weekend and Miso-Ramen Noodles

I know that I've been talking a lot about the rain in my last few posts.  But we're getting A LOT of rain here in New York...we're drowning in it!!  I've started to get a little stir crazy since all I want to do when the weather is so dreary is curl up in my bed with a cup of tea with a good book and the Food Network on. The one bright spot is that I get to whip out Tyler's yellow rain slicker.
Ain't he CUTE?!!?!?  He puts up with it with that suffering look, but the sight of him makes me smile on any rainy day.

So when it looked like the rain had cleared for a bit this past Friday, I put away my rain boots and took out my heels and took the weekend off from cooking. Since Saturday, May 21st is supposed to be the day the world ends, I think I deserved to take the night off and just enjoy the food being served!  It also meant I was a bit lazy with my food shots at the restaurants, but bear with me. 

Friday night, I headed out with my friend Bijal to an old favorite: Motorino.  The end of the work week just seems like the perfect time to have a slice of pizza. And there are few pizzerias in the city that can beat the beautifully charred, thin crust Neopolitan-style pizzas they serve at Motorino. Their pizzas have won the best pizza title in America within the Eastern Division.  The crust is crusty and fluffy at the same time and the red sauce has this gorgeous sweetness of really good roasted tomatoes. 

We started with a perfect little plate of cockles cooked in a white wine-garlic sauce.  They were tender, not chewy, and tasted like it had just come out of the sea. We took a while to deliberate over which pies to order since Bijal had had their brussel-sprouts and smoked pancetta pizza in the past.  She had loved it, but we thought it would be nice to try something new.  The New York Times described it "like something from a magic act, a dog speaking BBC English."  I wish I had read the review before going because instead of getting that pie, we ordered the cremini and spicy sausage (pictured on the right) which in the same article is described as arriving "at the table ever so slightly watery, a little off-putting. Within five minutes it heals itself, and thus rewards the wait before eating."    While it was good, it was definitely not one of the best I've had there. I was much happier with it once I asked for some sea salt and sprinkled some over the top.

However, their daily special "ramp pizza" more than made up for my slight disappointment with the cremini and sausage.  I had ordered the ramp pizza last year around the same time which was also my first time there.  I clearly remember that my dining partner then had to be the one to tell me that it was cheeseless except for the sprinkling of pecorino cheese on top.  I had been so enthralled with the perfect pie that had been delivered to our table and my first perfect bite that I didn't even miss the oozing cheese which to me is always one of the best things about eating pizza...sweet red sauce enhancing the sweetness of grilled ramps resting on a chewy, smoky chargrilled dough.  Reordering the pie for a second time was equally delicious. I mean look at it...really? Enough said...

Our night didn't end there though. We decided to forego dessert at Motorino and head over for some coffee and sweet a few blocks down at an East Village post-drinking landmark that I had been meaning to go to for years: Veselka. Open 24 hours since 1954, this Ukranian diner supposedly serves up a mean bowl of borscht according to Mr. Ted Allen of "Queer Eye for Straight Guy" fame.

That night though, we were just after a good ol' cup of joe and some dessert to chase down our pizza. We scored a table immediately outside to enjoy the warm evening weather and people-watch.  We decided to share a cherry crumble pie á la mode which I still regret not photographing that night.  My belly was just too content from the night's over-the-top feast.  While the pie was good, it was not earth shattering.  But together with my skim latte (foamless! I'm happy to say since I forgot to ask them to remove it), it was the perfect way to end the night and a long work week.  I will be back to Veselka for some of their borscht and pierogies for sure!

A 25-minute bus ride home later shared with three loud, obnoxious drunken boys in their 30s (ah New York!), I was back home walking some of the night off with Tyler before we both tucked ourselves wearily into bed.

After my night out eating, I woke up early and peeked out my window to see SUN with not one cloud in sight in that robin blue sky. Hustling, in case I was dreaming and might miss any nice spring weather, I threw on some clothes, my Toms, one sleepy dog and headed out for the first time in a week to the park.  Before that, I headed over to Serafina's take-away café where I had discovered a few weeks back the closest Parisian-tasting pain au chocolat and flakiest scones in New York.  

Half-eaten almond croissant from Serafina cafe....ymmmm.

According to the sign above the counter, their croissants are baked fresh every day on-site using imported French flour.  I have no idea why an Italian restaurant was making such delicious French pastries, but it makes sense in the Franco-centric Upper East Side, and you will not hear any complaints out of me.  After grabbing an iced latté (large of course!) and a fresh out of the oven cranberry scone, we headed out to our spot on Cedar Hill to play a bit and enjoy our breakfast on an idyllic patch of lush green grass with the bright sun warming us up.  It was a wonderful way to start a Saturday morning.
We were happy to see that 6pm came and went and everyone was alive and kicking still.  Rapture bedamned!  Dinner that evening was at Daniel Boulud's newest restaurant concept, DBGB Kitchen & Bar that has been on my hit list since it opened.  Opened in the summer 2009 as a casual "beer and sausage" restaurant completely different from his other restaurants (including Bar Boulud which is still one of my favorite restaurants in the city), it is still constantly packed to this day. When I checked on OpenTable around 4:30pm that Saturday, the only available seating showing was still 5:30pm.  So despite my skeptical friends, we decided to brave it and see if we could walk-in and get a table.

Since I had some transportation issues with weekend subway construction (of course, it wouldn't be New York without that), I was happy to find my fellow diners already seated and waiting for me.  PLUS for DBGB since most restaurants in New York will not seat you unless the entire party is complete.  I will not do a full review of the restaurant for now since I didn't take pictures this time around and because I want to look into what I should have ordered vs what we actually ordered.  I definitely want to revisit it.  I would like to say that if you are a beer aficionado and have wads of money to spend on it, this is the place to go.  The beer menu is MASSIVE. Pages and pages of beers from around the world including an outrageous $450 Belgium beer.

We ended the night at Los Feliz in the Lower East Side, a 10-15 minute walk from the restaurant. Now I had eaten there before for a friend's birthday party before and I think I will continue dining at this cool, hidden restaurant that has below-ground dining available.  The Mexican food was good though not the best I've had in the city. But the environment is so fun! As for the lounge area, if you enjoy music thumping so loud that you can't hear the person you're talking to about 6 inches away from you even when you're screaming, I would not recommend it. After about an hour, I called it quits, said my farewells and hopped into a taxi quite happily.

Sunday morning I slept in a bit before heading out to brunch with my sister and her fiancé who had crashed in my apartment the night before.  All three of us were a bit lethargic between the previous night and the dreary, cold weather (yes, the rain was back!). After indulging in a delicious crab cake eggs benedict and a complimentary glass of bellini at Atlantic Grill, we all rolled out of there ready for a nap.  After giving Tyler the bone marrow I had doggy bagged from DBGB for him, I took a quick half-hour catnap while he amused himself.

Later that evening, I was still feeling lethargic...probably from my overindulgence the past few nights! So I decided to make something super easy and light for dinner.  Since it was still extremely chilly outside, I felt it was so appropriate to make myself a big bowlful of comforting ramen noodles to warm myself up.

Now this is no bland, limp Nissin instant ramen noodles that you can buy from Stop & Shop on sale, 20 for $1, which you pretty much lived on while in college and in your early 20s.  This is FRESH ramen noodles that you can pick up at any Asian grocery store along with just a few ingredients that you can pick up and find at your local super market.  It takes about the same time to make as those instant noodles, but loads healthier and definitely tastier. You can add meat or other vegetables to this ramen if you'd like.  Since my weekend was chockful of some heavy dining, I kept this simple in respect to Japanese culinary traditions of nice, clean flavors.

Those of you who have never used miso paste in your cooking before, it is really useful for a lot of things other than for making miso soup.  Miso is a fermented soy bean paste with a strong odor and pretty salty.  So be pretty sparing when you use it as a little goes a long way.  I've used miso paste in marinades for chicken and fish in the past which gives it a salty smokiness.  I would even replace the black bean sauce in my Asian skewers with a tbsp of miso paste instead if you don't have black bean on hand.  I love pickled vegetables in my noodles, but was completely out.  If you see the small packets of them in your local Asian grocery store pick up a few.  They last forever and really add a kick to the broth.   For the noodles, always pick up the one that doesn't look cracked and dry.
Serves 1

1 package fresh ramen noodles
2 tbsp canola oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tbsp miso paste (I used one that already had dashi, basic Japanese soup stock, in the paste. If you just have regular miso, add 1 tbsp powdered dashi.)
2 cups hot water (You can add more or less depending on how much broth you like for your soups, I enjoy broth.  Adjust seasonings accordingly.)
1 large egg
1 stalk green scallion, cut into small pieces
1 sheet dried seaweed (optional)
Dash of black sesame seeds (optional)
Salt and ground black pepper (optional, the broth should be salty enough with the miso paste)

1.  In a pot, bring water to a boil over high heat. Add noodles and using tongs or chopsticks, occassionally separate the noodles to prevent them from sticking.  Cook for just 3-5 minutes since they are fresh noodles. When you test the noodle, it should still retain a little chewiness. Drain noodles and put to the side.

Look at these lovely curly noodles!

2.  In the same drained pot, add half oil and then sliced garlic over medium heat.  When the garlic has browned a bit, add the miso paste and mix together for less than a minute.  Add the hot water and bring everything to a boil.

3.  While broth is waiting to boil, in a small skillet add the rest of oil over medium high heat.  When oil is sizzling, crack a whole egg into the pan and lightly pan fry. I like the top to have a small thin white layer of egg, so I put a lid on top of the egg to create it.  Fry for 3-4 minutes, no longer otherwise your yolk will be hard and not runny.  If you don't like runny eggs, cook it for another minute or two.

4.  In a large soup bowl, add the reserved noodles. Top with broth and then scallions. Put the egg on top of the noodle. Using scissors, snip thin strips of dried seaweed and finish with the black sesame seeds.  As easy as that! Doesn't it look slurpilicious?!

349 E 12th St (between 1st and 2nd Ave)
New York, NY 10003-7266
Phone: (212) 777-2644

144 2nd Avenue @ 9th St
New York, NY 10003-8305
Phone: (212) 228-9682

Serafina Café
1022 Madison Avenue (between 78th & 79th St)
New York, NY 10075
Phone: (212) 734-3165

DBGB Kitchen and Bar
299 Bowery @ Houston
New York, NY 10003
Phone: (212) 933-5300

Los Feliz
109 Ludlow St @ Delancey
New York, NY 10002-3240
(212) 228-8383

Atlantic Grill
1341 3rd Ave (between 76th & 77th St)
New York, NY 10021
Phone: (212) 988-9200

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ramp Chimichurri Steak & Heirloom Tomato-Mozzarella Salad

I'm in denial that spring has disappeared from NYC again as we are deluged with rain EVERY DAY this week. So I've been cooking up anything that can go on a grill this week! Making an appearance in my small New York kitchen this week is my version of a chimichurri steak.

 Instead of my usual frites (aka french fries), I decided to lighten it up with a gorgeous summer salad using some beautiful heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil I had picked up this week. A classic combination for sure, but no less delicious when using great ingredients.
There are several fanciful stories for how chimichurri came into existence. One story claims that it comes from "Jimmy McCurry", an Irishman who is said to have first prepared the sauce in the 19th century while marching with troops in support of Argentine independence. Supposedly, Jimmy's sauce's name was corrupted to "chimichurri" because the natives couldn't pronounce his name.

Another variation has Argentinian gourmet Miguel Brascó claiming that the word chimichurri originated when the British were captured after England tried to invade Argentina. The prisoners asked for condiment for their food mixing English, aboriginal and Spanish (Castilian) words. Che-mi-curry stands for "che mi salsa" (dame condimento) or "give me curry". Later "che-mi-curry" corrupted to chimichurri.

I have no idea what's really true. But I am thankful that chimichurri was created. It is such a great marinade for meat, seafood and even vegetables! Typically made from parsley, garlic, red vinegar, oil and red pepper flakes, I made my own version using the ramp pesto I had leftover from my manic ramp cooking.

As soon as that marinated steak hit the sizzling pan, the intense smell of ramps, garlic and citrus quickly filled my studio and out into the hallway. I could barely contain my excitement! After letting the steak rest for a few minutes on the plate so it would be super juicy, I plated some of the heirloom tomato-mozzarella salad alongside.

It is the perfect combination since the sweet tomatoes cut through the fat if the steak. It's a sublime summer meal and great if you are only cooking for one. The fleur de sel on top of the salad provided a nice crunch at the end and really brought out all the flavors in the tomatoes and was a good seasoning for the mozzarella since it is not very salty.
The size of my steak allowed me leftovers for the next day which was even better! I could have easily cut the steak in half to make it into two steaks. If you have a big appetite, this will serve 1.

Marinate the steak before you leave for work in the morning, then all you have to do is throw the steak on and make the salad while you cook it. Less than half hour to put an extravagant steak house dinner out on the dinner table. The tomato-mozzarella salad is also great on it's own with as a light meal.

I hope you try any of these recipes! It is so versatile.  If you don't have ramps to make the pesto since they are seasonal, you can easily substitute this basic pesto recipe with basil or parsley.  Lactose intolerant or vegan eaters can also omit the cheese.  It is completely fine without!

Makes 2 servings

1 lb boneless rib eye steak, cleansed and patted dry
2 generous tbsp ramp pesto (recipe below) or any other pesto
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Season both sides of steak with salt and pepper. Place in a Ziploc bag and add pesto, lemon juice and oil. Seal and shake the bag around, massaging the marinade into the both sides if the steak. Marinade for at least 2 hours.

2. Remove the marinated steak from the fridge and let sit to bring to room temperature. When ready, heat a cast iron pan over high heat to give a nice sear and char on the meat. When the pan is hot, add the steak. Cook on each side for approximately 5 minutes per side for medium-rare. Do not give into the temptation to cut into your meat to see if it is cooked because it causes juices to be released, resulting in a dry steak YUCK.

3. Remove from heat and put steak on plate to sit for several minutes. Remember that when you let the meat sit, it will continue cooking for a few more minutes.

4. Serve alongside tomato-mozzarella salad. Bon appetit!!

Makes approximately 1 1/2 cups
2 bunches ramps, cleaned thoroughly
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 tbsp lemon zest
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp sea salt (or to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Throw all ingredients in a food processor. On high, pulse for several minutes until it comes together. It should be slightly thick.

2. Taste the pesto and season accordingly. If you like your pesto more liquidy, add more olive oil.

3. Store pesto in a air-tight sealable container. Pesto should be refrigerated and will keep for several weeks.

Serves 2 as side dish, 1 as main dish

6 thin slices fresh mozzarella
1 cup small heirloom tomatoes, cut in half
2 tbsp basil, chiffonade
Drizzle of good quality extra-virgin olive oil
Fleur de sel, to taste

1. Place mozzarella on plate, overlapping slightly. Top with halved tomatoes. Scatter basil on top. Lightly drizzle olive oil on top.

2. Season lightly with fleur de sel. That's it!!

3. The first step can be done the night before. Salt should be sprinkled on right before serving as it draws out the juices from tomatoes and makes the salad too wet otherwise.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Chase the Rainy Blues Away with this Whoppa-tini!

Last week was probably one of the most beautiful spring weather we've had in NYC so far.  Each day was a perfect high 60s to low 70s and sunny with fluffy white clouds floating through the air.  One of the things I love most about my neighborhood is my proximity to Central Park.  A ten-minute walk from my apartment, I spent my mornings before work with my dog, Tyler, frolicking amongst tens of other dogs rolling in joy on the lawn of Cedar Hill.  Early evenings after work was spent pretty much the same way and weekend mornings and lazy afternoons, etc. Any minute that I could find to be outdoors, I was despite my allergies to spring pollen.  It was a magical spring week that everyone in New York rejoiced in with families picnicking into the early evening throughout the park and kids playing on the swings and jungle gym. It was an early prelude of the lazy summer days to come.

Lazy dog days....

You could literally smell spring in the air.

But then, this weekend came along and brought in the clouds and the rain which apparently is here to stay until Sunday.  Sigh. Mother Nature can be so cruel.

So in order to chase the rain away, I am bringing you back to some old-school childhood summer memories of emptying your piggy bank down to every last penny to buy some icy treats from the ice cream man. Praying frantically that he wouldn't leave before you got there.  Just hearing the tinny music fourteen floors up in my office makes me dream of those lazy summer days with a cone of soft ice cream melting over the sides and onto my fingers.

With all of these memories in mind while at work, I knew what I wanted when I got home that evening: a milk shake.  I had some leftover cinnamon-rum ice cream that I had made for my Easter dinner and some Whoppers I had bought on a whim while shopping in Target in the $1 aisle (most of what I buy at Target appears to be impulsive I have to admit!).  Now, Whoppers are one of those treats that I have literally not had since I was in sixth grade.  I don't know why I haven't had them because their malty, caramelly, chocolatey goodness was the perfect addition for my shake. Even the box just brings back all these giddy childhood memories along with Sour Patch Kids, Junior Mints, and Sugar Daddys.

But this is no shake for your kids, girls and boys!  With some of my trusty Reyka vodka, this childhood delight is now a perfect summer treat to cool down all the adults coming over for an afternoon barbecue or a retro dinner party. I think this shake-tini would be great with any other candy you might have laying around the house, such as Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, Twix, etc.  For the ice cream, use what you have in the freezer, can you just imagine strawberry ice cream with the peanut butter cups?!?!  Just a warning to not drink this whoppa-tini too quickly...the sweetness is deceptive and the vodka can creep up on you!

Makes 2 drinks

Handful of ice cubes
1/4 cup Whoppers
2 scoops ice cream
1/2 cup skim milk (I had to cut the fat somewhere!)
1 1/2 shots good quality vodka

1.  Throw all ingredients into a blender.  On high speed, blend everything all together for several minutes until the whoppers are processed finely. It should be slightly slushy.  I had little granules of whoppers that collected at the bottom of my glass which I liked especially since it took on some of the vodka.

2.  While blending, chill two martini glasses by putting a few ice cubes and some water into each glass.

3.  Pour out the ice and water from each glass and then pour the shake mixture evenly into the two chilled martini glasses.
4.  Garnish with a whopper on each glass.  Use a paring knife and carefully make a slit halfway down each whopper so that it stays on the glass.  Bottoms up!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mother's Day, Buddha Day Celebration, and My Chinese Kebabs

First off, a belated, very happy mother's day to all the mothers and mothers-to-be out there!  If it wasn't for our mothers, we would not be here today or had someone to fuss over us when we're sick or hurt.  Now my relationship was my mother has never been calm or smooth and we may not trade secrets, but she will always be my mother. And I will always love her no matter what happens.

I was definitely never an obedient Chinese daughter growing up.  I was too involved with my inner turmoil of learning how to fit in and be "American".  I despaired of ever finding anything in common with my white American friends in the suburbs of northern NJ.  While their mothers were baking them chocolate chip cookies with milk and making spaghetti, my mother was introducing me to chicken gizzards, hearts and cow brain. I loved the few days when my mom made spaghetti for me and my sister.  Even then, her spaghetti definitely had an Asian flair; the recipe is still one which I use to this day and will share one day soon. Of course, it has been slightly tweaked to suit my tastes.

While hearing about eating offal may sound awful (I know...so bad, but I couldn't resist!!), they are some of my favorite things to eat today.  It may have been the fact that when I ate them I had no idea what they were.  My mom just put the plate down in front of me and I ate or did not leave the dinner table.  I thank her for that, ungrateful child that I was.  If it wasn't for her, I would never have known the sweet & savory flavors that I love so much now.

For mother's day this year, my parents really wanted to spend the day in by Bear Mountain to attend the Buddha Day ceremonies at Chuang Yen Monastery.  Every year for the past 12 years or so, my parents make this annual 2-hour trip to the temple for the ritual washing of the Buddha commemorating the birth of Buddha. Since I attended university out-of-state and then lived in Virginia for a few years after graduating, I had obviously not attended in years.  The last time I was there, the monastery had not even been complete yet.
My father performing the ritual of washing the statue of Buddha.

To my surprise, the completed monastery is set upon a sprawling ground, elegant and serene. Set within a mountainous hill right off Route 301 near the town of Lake Carmel, it has adapted the trees it was built within and made it part of their own for a harmonious appearance.  With the bright sun sneaking through the tree branches and the sounds of the Buddhist monks chanting as we walked up the pathway to the center of the monastery, it was truly humbling.  Even the interior of the Great Buddha Hall is unique from any other Buddhist temples I have seen.  Modern-looking with the airiness and massive blonde wood pillars supporting the building, it is still breathtaking to say the least. It almost feels as if they brought the woods of the outside and tamed it with the hall.  At a grand height of 84 foot, a visitor walks in and is welcomed in by light and space.  At the center of it all is the main attraction: the 37 foot statue of Buddha Vairocana - the largest Buddha statue in the Western hemisphere. Encircling the large statue are 10,000 small statues of the Buddha on a lotus terrace. While I don't feel the same sense of history as I do when I walk through other older Buddhist temples, there is a sense of peace and serenity that the monks of Chuang Yen make each visitor feel still.

My parents made their donation and left a blessing in the form of the candle to protect the family.
After we finished with the celebration around noon, we headed over to the grassy area where a bunch of stalls had been set up with food vendors and some random goods to sell.  I was drooling over one of my favorite things to eat shown below, braised seaweed and tofu. Yummy yummy!!
There was even this man carving pieces of vegetables into various shapes.  He was working on a rooster carving on a whole piece of daikon radish here. My father used to carve carrot flowers or pagoda temples out of daikon radish for our meals all the time growing up, so I'm always enthralled watching this form of artistry.

And then my all time favorite street snacks which can be found in all various parts of Asia in different forms: fishballs on a stick grilled on a barbecue.  As you can see here it is not only fishballs, but other things like tempura or tempeh. Since we were at a monastery, there was no meat to be found at the temple.  Perfect for all you veggies!  These were flavored with a soy-sauce base that was a little sweet.  
This savory snack is what I am offering as my Mother's Day recipe because it was something my mom made for us a lot and what I would eat when I was in Taiwan visiting as a child and when I visit any Asian country.  Since my mother much prefers something like this to any baked goods, I know that she would chow down on these happily especially with her love for eggplant.  :)

Normally, the sauce I use is made with chicken hearts or gizzards in our kitchen.  But I am toning it down here to make it more accessible as I know how frightening it can be for most people.  We normally use the Asian BBQ sauce as the base, but my puny muscles couldn't open the new bottle.   Sniff, sniff. It was replaced with the bottle of black bean sauce that was MUCH easier to open up.  I was pretty pleased with the outcome of my Chinese kebabs...they were smoky, sweet, and salty with a slight kick at the end.  

With the barbecue season upon us and this gorgeous spring weather, it's the perfect thing to throw on the grill as an unusual twist to surprise your guests.  Or if you're like me with no grill in sight, just throw it into the oven for a great appetizer at your next dinner party!

Makes 6 sticks

For the sauce:
2 cloves garlic, roughly minced
1 thick slice ginger, skin removed and roughly minced
2 tbsp black bean sauce (I used Lee Kum Kee brand)
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce (I use the same soy sauce I had growing up in my mom's kitchen, Kimlan Ponlai soy sauce, any other brand would be sacrilegious)
Dash of sesame oil
1 tsp sugar 
1/2 tsp red chile flakes (or to taste, I like a slight kick but not overwhelming)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the skewers:
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 inch cubes
1/2 Italian eggplant, cut into 1 inch cubes (I would recommend 1 Japanese eggplant since it doesn't take as long to cook and more tender, but I couldn't find it that day)
2 scallions (using entire stalk), cut into 1 inch pieces
6 wooden skewers

1. In a non-reactive, medium size bowl, add all of the ingredients and mix together with a spoon until it has all come together.  Add the chicken, eggplant and scallion and mix until each piece is coated with sauce. Cover top of bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of half hour.  I would recommend 2-3 hours for the flavors to really seep into the chicken and eggplant.
2.  While the kebabs are marinating, put the wooden skewers in a baking dish filled half way with cold water.  Make sure the skewers are immersed in the water.  Otherwise, put another pan on top to keep it from floating. This will keep the skewers from burning while in the oven.

3.  Take the kebab mixture out of the fridge and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  While preheating, start putting together the skewers.  I started with the chicken, eggplant then scallion and repeated it one more time.  You can do whatever your heart desires here! If you want all chicken or all eggplant, go right ahead.
4.  Cook in preheated oven for approximately 20-25 minutes until chicken is cooked fully.  Take out halfway to turn over and baste with the leftover sauce.  I have warned you in the past before about overcooking chicken which makes it completely dry and stringy. You will know the chicken is done if you press down with your finger and it is slightly firm, but not a lot of give.  If you are grilling this outside on your barbecue, it should only take 5-7 minutes per side on a hot grill before it is cooked to perfection.

5.  On a rectangular serving platter, pile the skewers up on top each other. Serve immediately.  It is still mighty tasty at room temperature, but hot is obviously better.  :)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My FIRST Blog Award & Melding East & West: Chinese "Ramp" Pancakes

For those of you who have not heard of and/or had a ramp, you're probably wondering what they are.  Ramps are one of the trendiest vegetables in the food industry right now.  They are in such demand now that the New York Times even wrote an article expressing concerns of ramp shortages in the future.

A wild leek that grows from Quebec to Georgia in mountainous regions during the first few weeks of spring (typically arrives in the beginning of April), they have been used for centuries as a spring tonic.  There are even "ramp festivals" in the South.  For roughly $12 per pound, they are definitely not cheap. But it definitely worth investing in one bunch which usually runs between $3-4.  Just a warning that they shrink dramatically when cooked, so that one bunch is barely enough for two people.
Around March, I start dreaming about ramps and all the ways I have used them...ramp pizza, ramp risotto, ramps on top of my hot dogs with a tomato marmalade jam, ramp pesto, etc, etc. Some photos of the various ways I have cooked with them are below.
Ramp Pizza

Ramp Hot Dogs with Tomato-Basil Marmalade

Spring Primavera Risotto with Corn & Ramps

Why are people so obsessed with them though? For me, I love its delicate garlicky and floral flavor.  Just the smell of a fresh bunch in my hands gets me excited.  It's probably also the fact that they are available for just a few weeks a year.  It is a definite call that spring is here! This year, I thought for sure I was going to miss them with all my work travels. I saw them in Seattle at Pike Place Market and nearly cried that I was so close, but unable to purchase any.  Thankfully, I was able to get my hands on a few at the Union Square Farmer's Market. We are coming towards the end of ramp season, so run to your nearest farmer's market and see if they might still have some for you to try!

I decided to try my hand at a few different recipes this year including as a side for my Easter dinner.  I am featuring my version of Chinese Scallion Pancakes this year, substituting the scallions with ramps.  I grew up loving these crispy, pan fried treats in my house.  My mom used to make them in big batches all the time and we would just take it out of the fridge and onto the pan whenever we wanted a pancake.  But it has been years since she has taken the time and effort to make them by hand.  Scallion pancakes are pretty much readily available at every Chinese take-out restaurant and in the frozen food aisle at Asian supermarkets.  There is just something about making it at home though as I'm sure you can all attest to.

This time around I really wanted to know how to make them myself. So on a weekend home in NJ, I asked my mom to teach me how to make them.  To my surprise, I found out that the recipe wasn't hers but my dad!! So, here is my tutorial session with my dad on how to make traditional Chinese scallion pancakes (called cong you bing in Mandarin but pronounced like "chung yo beeng") using an untraditional local ingredient. Thank you daddy!!

It sounds complicated, but it is actually quite simple and uses less than five ingredients!  Now, I am warning you that they are not the healthiest things, but in small doses it never hurts!

Chinese "Ramp" Pancakes
Makes 6 pancakes

2 cup unbleached flour
1/2 cup hot water
1 bunch ramps, washed thoroughly with ends taken off and chopped finely (or 5 stalks scallion)
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
Salt (I used sea salt, but iodized table salt is fine)

1.  In a large bowl, create a crater in the flour and slowly add the hot water.  It should start to come together. The hot water keeps the dough moist and soft. Knead the dough until it becomes elastic and starts to form into a ball.

2.  Finish kneading the dough on a wooden cutting board. The dough should have a little shine.
Look at my dad go!!

3.  Cover with a clean towel and put in a warm spot for the dough to rise for approximately 20 minutes. It will not rise significantly like yeasty dough does, but will definitely grow.

3.  Cut into 6 pieces. Roll out the piece of dough into a round shape; it should be roughly 1/8 inch thick.

4.  With a pastry brush, lightly coat the rolled out dough with olive oil. Scatter the ramps evenly on top of the dough. Add a pinch of salt over the dough. Repeat with the other 5 pieces of dough.

5.  Then, roll the dough back up and fold together on both ends and form into a ball again. Make sure no ramps are sticking out of the dough.

6.  In a large bowl, cover the dough with olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours.  You can cook it immediately as is if you do not have the time.  Letting the dough rest adds an extra crisp to the finished pancakes. The dough in the oil can actually stay refrigerated up to a week.

7.  Roll out the dough on the wooden cutting board again until 1/8 inch thick.

8.  Over medium heat, cook each pancake 10 minutes on each side or until browned.

9.  Remove from heat and immediately sprinkle salt to taste on the pancake.  It can also be served with a sauce made from soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil with a bit of sugar.

Before signing out today, I definitely want to give a HUGE thank you to Elyse from the Cultural Dish for checking out my blog and passing on these lovely awards to me! THANK YOU, THANK YOU for reading and for caring enough about what I write to recognize it.

Since this is my very FIRST award, I hope I am following all the rules to it properly.  :)

7 fun facts about myself that I want to share with all of you (some of you know this already, but I am revealing my kryptonite to the unknown world now!)
  1. There are two celebrities I hate most in the world: Bette Midler and Beyoncé.  I have no idea why...I just really, really hate them. Sorry for all you lovers of either of them.
  2. I start crying over everything from those ASPCA commercials to Little Mermaid and even Transformers. Yes...Transformers
  3. I own over 100 pairs of shoes (I know it's frightening!!) but really wear about 10 of them constantly.
  4. I wrote several fan letters to John Stamos (he has my same birthday!) and started a fan club in 6th grade.
  5. I ran away from home when I was 9 years old and hid in my friend's attic.  It lasted 2 hours before my guilt wore me down so my mom never even knew.  Instead, I just got in trouble for not picking up my 5 year old sister from kindergarten.
  6. I used to bring home stray animals all the time to nurse including a baby bird whose mother died.  There were turtles and chameleons involved as well. This did not make my parents happy.
  7. I am finishing up this blog while at work as my "break". Shhh....
And last but certainly not least, a shout out to all the fabulous blogs who I am following.  I am paying it forward by giving these well-deserved awards to them too.  It is so inspiring to see so many talented, untrained/trained cooks and bakers out there.  Their heart and soul goes into every post and I am so honored to be a part of this new realm of foodie bloggers. Thank you for welcoming me into your community and providing me such great feedback!

This is only a short list as there sooooo many of you out there! Thanks to everyone again and keep on eating and cooking.