Thursday, May 31, 2012

Creamy Harissa-Corn Soup

With summer comes along an ingredient I can eat all year round: corn!  I am so blessed to have fresh Jersey corn available so easily and in such abundance. These wonderful packets of joy have become such a prevalent part of our modern lives that you'll find it not only on your dining table, but in your fuel, animal feed and even penicillin! Isn't it great what nature can provide us with?!

Right now, our Jersey corn is at its peak: sweet and succulent. So when I stopped by the grocery store this week and saw a sale on corn, I knew I just had to stock up.  Some of them were boiled and I roasted a few Taiwanese-style (more on that later) and the last few I saved for this creamy harissa-corn soup.

I love the taste of corn on its own, so I tried to keep this recipe as simple as possible with as few ingredients to keep the pure corn taste distinguishable.  I saved the kernel-less cobs to steep in the milk and give the entire soup an even more intense corn taste. Make sure to reserve any corn milk (juices from when you cut the kernels off cob) to add to the soup. You do not need to toast the corn kernels if you do not have the time and just purée it raw.  However, I think toasting it brings the natural sweetness to the forefront and adds an additional caramelization taste.

When you top the soup with the harissa paste, do use it with caution.  A small dollop can pack quite a wallop!  The flavors come together really nicely in this quick and easy soup.  You can still taste the wonderful sweetness of the corn through the heat of the harissa. The créme fraîche adds a nice cool finish.


Serves 4

8 ears of corn, kernels removed and cobs reserved
4 cups 2% milk
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, whole and peeled
1 tbsp canola oil
2 tbsp granulated sugar

1 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Harissa paste, to taste

Créme fraîche  or Greek yogurt
1 tbsp snipped flowering chives or chives

1. In a medium stockpot, add corn, milk, bay leaves, and garlic.  Bring to a boil on medium-high heat and then lower to low.  Simmer for 20-25 minutes to allow the flavors to come together.

2.  While the corn broth is simmering, toast corn kernels in a large sauté pan with canola oil on high heat for approximately 5 minutes until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat until ready to use.

3.  In a blender, add toasted kernels, corn broth and sugar.  Make sure to remove the bay leaf and garlic cloves from the broth. On high, purée the mixture for several minutes.  Add salt and pepper slowly and adjust seasoning to taste. I like to leave it slightly chunky for a nice texture, but you can purée till smooth if you prefer.

4.  Serve immediately in a soup bowl. Top with a dollop of créme fraîche, harissa paste and chives.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Asparagus-Goat Cheese Tart

As I mentioned in an earlier blog the other week, I have been commuting to New York from New Jersey for the next few weeks cat-sitting for my parents.  So when I'm in Jersey, I am always trying to find something fun and interesting to do to keep myself amused.  It is a great time for me to experiment in the kitchen since my parents have a rather fair size kitchen that was renovated a few years back.  My only complaints is that they have bare minimal cooking utensils and gadgets.

I had thought ahead this time around and packed a few things with me this time around that I could easily carry to/from NYC including my handheld immersion blender that I used for my chilled fiddlehead-asparagus soup and star-shaped popsicle molds for my upcoming Memorial Day blog (stay tuned for that!).  However, I was still missing a few essentials.  So after a quick trip to Target and HomeGoods, I happily unpacked my new kitchen tools for my Jersey kitchen including an inexpensive new food processor (used in this recipe!) that works surprisingly well.

So last Thursday, I checked out the weather forecast and saw nothing but beautiful sun and 80 degree weather up through the weekend. I hadn't been down to Princeton in a long time and I have a few favorite spots there that I love. It's the perfect spot to spend a sunny afternoon with the outdoor shops and restaurants in Palmer Square, right on the outskirts of the prestigious Princeton University.  Another bonus is that I can take my pup shopping with me here and have him bask in the glory of the weather with me!

Princeton also has some great farms in the area where we usually go apple picking. One of my personal favorites is Terhune Orchards, famous for their apples and apple cider. I checked out their website to see what seasonal produce they were featuring and lo-and-behold, I read: "Pick your own asparagus." Yes. That's right. Pick my OWN asparagus.  It was too good to be true! I have never picked my own asparagus, much less seen it grown from the ground.  I am a city girl after all. I've tried my hand at growing my own herbs in the past, but my sister and I concur that our entire family has a black thumb. We've killed everything ever given or bought including a sad little cactus plant.  :(    It is a sad, but true, fact.

So, the next morning I packed up the dog and drove the 22 miles to Princeton, enjoying the cool breeze and warm sun on my face along the relatively quiet, winding and hilly roads. We did a little shopping and eating in Princeton's Palmer Square before heading out to the farms. But then it was onwards to Terhune Orchards and Griggstown Quail Farm. See my pictures below of my first experience picking asparagus!
The asparagus was everything I imagined: crispy, yet tender and sweet.  I featured it in my soup and had thought to do it raw but didn't pick any asparagus thick enough for that purpose.  Roasted asparagus is always a great way to use up your delicious spring asparagus.  This super easy and scrumptious asparagus-goat cheese tart is the perfect light dinner to have with just a side of fresh greens.  It is also great to serve as an appetizer or hors d'oeuvres. The addition of goat cheese was a great complement as the tanginess in the cheese brought out the sweetness of the asparagus.

For my pesto sauce, I didn't have any of my usual ingredients and was too lazy to go out to the grocery store.  So after scrounging through cupboards and the refrigerator I was able to put together what I am calling my "pantry pesto" which was just tasty.  I loved the addition of the sundried tomatoes which added an unusual sweetness to the pesto.  If you already have some pesto on hand, feel free to use that instead. But do try your pesto with some sundried tomatoes next time!

Serves 2-3 (as a main dish)

Pantry pesto:
1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
1/2 cup parsley, roughly chopped
12 mint leaves, stems removed
8 sundried tomatoes
1/4 cup toasted walnut
1 clove garlic, whole
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 sheet puff pastry
10 stalks asparagus
4 tbsp pantry pesto
1 goat cheese log, rolled into small balls, and then sprinkled randomly
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1.  For pesto, add all ingredients in a food processor. Pulse on high for a few minutes until it is fully mixed.  Add more oil if it is still too thick.  I did not make the pesto very thin since I wanted it more like a paste.  Refrigerate until ready to use.

2. Remove puff pastry dough from freezer and defrost for 40 minutes until soft enough to use.

3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

4.  On a lined pre-greased baking sheet pan, unfold the dough and roll up each edge.  Spoon pesto onto dough and evenly spread to the edge. Line asparagus lengthwise on the dough, flipping every other asparagus the other way.

5. Top with parmesan and goat cheese. Brush edges of pastry with oil for a nice golden crust. Sprnkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bake for 20 minutes.

6. Cut into squares and serve immediately.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Chilling this Memorial Day Weekend with Summer Sangria Popsicles

While the first official start of summer is not until June 20th this year, most people in the US wait eagerly for Memorial Day weekend as the kick-off for summer.  Tropical beach getaways, weekends in the Hamptons, barbecues, dips in the pool, outdoor happy hours, flip flops, and best of all...summer hours. Oh yes, those companies who have summer hours/summer Fridays are envied by those poor employees who are forced to start their weekends at 5pm vs 2pm on Fridays when the sun is out in full force and calling to you. (Honestly, it's just cruel to not enforce summer Fridays with official legislation!)

So, this Memorial Day weekend, whatever your plans are, keep you and your guests cool with these summer sangria pops filled with juicy, sweet pieces of blackberries, strawberries, peaches, and mangoes.  Soaked overnight in a mixture of good quality vodka and St Germain (a sweet Elderflower liqueur), each little piece of fruit pops a small concentrated amount of liquor on your tongue.  It is delicious and refreshing on a warm, pre-summer afternoon with a hidden kick. So don't let your guests overindulge in these! It may not taste very sweet or strong, but have more than a few and your guests will be giddily dancing the afternoon away.

I love these star-shaped popsicle molds as they bring back a bit of nostalgia with the rocket popsicles I used to have growing up from the neighborhood ice cream truck. Use whatever fruit you might have on hand and enjoy eating.

Have a safe and fun Memorial Day weekend wherever you are!
Makes 10-12 popsicles

1 mango, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 peach, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup strawberries, thinly sliced lengthwise
1/2 cup blackberries, thinly sliced lengthwise
1 1/2 cup vodka (I used Ketel One)
1 cup St Germain
2 cups club soda

1.  In a large pitcher, add fruit, vodka and St Germain.  Allow the fruit to macerate for at least 3 hours if not overnight. Refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Remove pitcher from refrigerator and add club soda.  Stir briefly to mix together.

3.  Carefully pour the liquid into the popsicle mold 3/4 full.  Then, using a spoon carefully add a mixture of fruits until full. Place molds in freezer overnight. 

4.  To remove popsicle from mold, rinse warm water over the mold to release.  Squeeze on sides of the mold gently to work on getting it looser, jiggle carefully and voilá, it's free! Freeze until ready to serve or eat immediately.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Chilled Fiddleheads-Asparagus Soup

It's unbelievable to think after the ups and downs Mother Nature has played on us this year that summer is actually near. With the sun blazing today, temperatures hovering around a perfect 80 degrees Fahrenheit and a cool breeze it is the perfect pre-summer Saturday.

In honor of this gorgeous weather and it being May 19th, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution Day, I decided to make a zesty, cooling chilled fiddleheads-asparagus soup.
Before I get into fiddleheads and what they are, I want to briefly explain what today's Food Revolution Day is all about.  In 2010, ABC launched a groundbreaking reality show following Jamie Oliver's quest to tackle America's obesity problem and get our kids healthy by getting into the schools and teaching kids how to eat healthy and where their food came from.  The first season started off in Huntington, West Virginia, statistically the unhealthiest city in the US. Season two took him to Los Angeles, California, home to the 2nd largest school district in the country. It was heartbreaking to hear and see the stories of these children and their families suffering from obesity and even more shocking to see how several of the kids were unable to identify everyday fruits and vegetables or even know where their meat originated. Unfortunately, despite the compelling story ABC cancelled the show half-way through the second season due to lack of commercial support.  What sprouted from the show though was an overwhelming support worldwide for Jamie's Food Revolution to get the US to initiate policies to feed our children healthier food within the school system. This is a monumental task.  So in the meantime, the Food Revolution is working on the local grass-roots level by setting up free kitchens and cooking lessons within communities to teach children and adults how to start cooking. Please take a minute to check out the website and sign the petition to show your support for this incredible initiative.

Now, back to fiddleheads. What are they exactly? I had wondered the same thing myself for the last few seasons and have just looked at them as an oddity.  A vegetable taken from the furled fronds of a young fern, fiddleheads usually appear in the early springtime and look like a tightly curly "q", similar to a snail shell. Used both in Asian cooking and North American, fiddleheads are extremely versatile in its culinary use.  I am extremely interested in trying it in an Indonesian dish called gulai paku which are fiddleheads cooked in a rich coconut sauce mainly spiced with lemongrass, galangal, chili pepper and turmeric leaves. I will save that for another day though!  Tonight, it will be featured in my chilled soup!  Fiddleheads have the sweet, lemony, grassy taste of asparagus which is why I paired them here with asparagus in my cold buttermilk-based soup. The use of the buttermilk gave the soup a nice tang with a bit of richness from the créme fraîche added at the very end.

This chilled fiddlehead-asparagus soup is the perfect, refreshing light lunch or starter on a hot summer day. You can also serve them for your next cocktail party served in short shot glasses, topped with a sprig of fiddlehead or asparagus on a toothpick. Tonight, mine will be enjoyed al fresco with a glass a cool white wine and my marinated all-natural, free range poussin from Griggstown Quail Farm. What a perfect way to close the first Food Revolution Day!

Serves 2

1 tbsp grapeseed oil
1 cup fiddleheads, cleaned thoroughly and brown ends trimmed
1 cup asparagus, cut 1-inch long
1 clove garlic, smashed
1/2 cup vegetable stock
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp Worchestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tbsp créme fraîche (optional)
Chives (optional)

1.  In a medium size pot, heat oil over medium high heat. Add fiddleheads, asparagus and garlic and saute until slightly softened. Add vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Then lower heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.
2.  Remove from heat and add buttermilk, Worchestershire sauce, salt and pepper.  Using a hand-held immersion blender, process until solids are all liquified and soup is smooth. This will take several minutes.
3.  Chill for at least 3 hours before serving.  Ladle into a bowl, add 1 tbsp créme fraîche and chives per bowl if desired. Serve chilled, not at room temperature.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Thai Yellow Curry Noodle Soup with Crispy Asian Duck

Today I finally booked my Thanksgiving trip to Thailand (followed by a short work trip to Hong Kong!) to visit the Mistress of Spices in her new home!! Since she's moved there, I've been eyeing her pictures in jealousy and dreaming of cheap eating in the food stalls I love so much.  There's nothing better than food stalls in Asia.  Give me a steaming, fragrant bowl of noodles on the side of a street, balancing on a rickety stool in the middle of a bustling street market over a fancy four-star restaurant any day!

My friends who are reading this might be laughing a bit at this point because there is also nothing else I love more than checking out a new hotspot in town from a celebrity chef.

But Anthony Bourdain put it best in the article I was reading on the way home this afternoon in the new Bon Appetit issue: "the value of a dish is the pleasure it brings you; where you are sitting when you eat it -- and who you are eating it with -- are what really matter."

Great family and friends makes for great eats anytime, anywhere. And I am looking forward to some great eats to finish up 2012, filled with vibrant memories of the native Thai culture and its infamous heat!

In preparation for my upcoming trip, I've been experimenting with different flavors from Thai ingredients such as kaffir lime and yellow curry paste.   I still had some leftover yellow curry paste from the Thai yellow curry fried rice I made last month and decided to finish it off in a spicy coconut noodle broth topped with a crispy-skin duck marinated in an Asian five-spice glaze. For the noodle, I used dried instant ramen noodles since I don't have easy access to fresh egg noodles unless I go to Chinatown.  If you are able to find it easily, definitely use it versus the dried noodle for authenticity.
Vegetarians, take heart and just skip the duck and you have a perfectly delicious and hearty Thai noodle soup.   It is the perfect blend of two Asian cultures.  Until November, this tasty noodle soup will tide me over nicely. Sluuurrrrppp!!!

Serves 2

For marinade:
1 1" piece ginger, peeled and smashed
3 cloves, garlic peeled and whole
1 star anise
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 tsp Chinese 5-spice
1/3 cup dark soy sauce
2 tbsp honey
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 duck breasts

For the broth:
1 tsp coconut oil
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1/2" inch slice ginger, peeled and smashed
6 bok choy leaves, sliced diagonally
6 crimini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup enoki mushrooms
6 baby corn, halved
2 1/2 tbsp yellow curry paste
1 kaffir lime leaf
1 cup coconut milk
2 cups hot water
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 whole star anise
2 servings dried instant ramen noodles

Sriracha (optional)
Fresh lime wedges (optional but recommended)
Fresh cilantro leaves (optional)

For duck:
1. Mix all ingredients for marinade in a large non-reactive bowl.  Reserve 4 tbsp of marinade in a separate small bowl.  Add duck to large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and marinade overnight.

2.  The next morning, remove duck from marinade and place on a covered plate to dry out for a few hours in the refrigerator. Removing the wetness of the marinade will allow the duck skin to get crispier.

3.  Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Prior to putting duck breasts in oven, make sure to score the skin to allow oil to cook out. Roast duck breasts for 1/2 hour, draining oil to ensure crispiness.

4.  Raise heat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and cook for another 1/2 hour. Within the last 10 minutes, glaze the duck with the reserve marinade. Don't worry if the duck becomes slightly blackened on top as this is a result of the soy sauce and honey in the marinade and only adds to the crispiness.

5. Remove from oven and top noodle immediately.

For noodle soup:
1.  In a large pot, warm oil over medium-high heat.  Add shallots and ginger and saute for a few minutes until fragrant. Add bok choy, mushrooms, corn, curry paste and lime leaf.  Stirfry together for another few minutes until fully mixed.

2.  Add coconut milk, water, salt, fish sauce and star anise to the mixture.  Bring to a boil and then lower heat to a simmer for roughly 10 minutes to allow the flavors to come together in the broth.
3.  Add noodle to broth, cover and remove from heat.  Allow to stand until noodles are soft. Pour into a large bowl and top with duck. Serve with cilantro, lime and sriracha and top as you like. The broth will already be spicy, so only add the sriracha if you really want some intense heat.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Chicken in Black Bean Sauce

It's Mother's Day this upcoming Sunday and it will actually be a little weird since both my parents and my sister are leaving on their European tour while I am left behind in Jersey to catsit. Hmmm....something's very wrong with this picture.

Either way, I always like to do a little something Chinese and traditional for my mother since she has never been very adventurous with her eating (chicken hearts, pork intestines and brains don't count as we grow up eating this stuff!).  This chicken in black bean sauce would be something very similar to what we would have at home for our family dinner as it is quick and inexpensive.
I love using black bean sauce as it has a very distinct smell and taste.  Do not be tricked into thinking it is anything like the canned black beans you buy at your local grocery store!  It is created by a two-part process, fermenting and salting black soybeans. The process turns the beans black, soft, and mostly dry. The smell is sharp and extremely pungent, with a taste that is salty and somewhat bitter and sweet. It definitely gives that umami taste you are looking for if you want to create a traditional Chinese dish. 

My chicken in black bean sauce is a super simple, easy, and tasty stirfry that you can use any leftover chicken or vegetables you might have.  This would also be great with pork or silken tofu. If my mother had made it, she would have definitely used pork. But since I rarely cook with pork, it was hands down chicken!

Sometimes there is nothing better on Mother's Day except to cook something simple for her that tells her you were paying attention to what she was cooking for you. 

Happy mother's day, mom!!  Hope all of you mothers and mother-to-bes have a wonderful day!

Serves 4

1 tbsp canola oil
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, diced
1/4 lb green beans
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 cup mixed bell peppers
1/4 tsp red chile flakes
1 1/2 tbsp black bean sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp corn starch
2 tbsp cold water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Dash of Sesame oil
2 tbsp green scallions, sliced

1.  In a medium wok or deep pan over medium-high heat, add oil.  Once hot, add chicken and stir fry until outside is no longer pink, approximately 5 minutes.

2.  Add green beans, garlic, peppers and chile. Stir fry together for a few minutes. Add black bean, soy sauce, corn starch and water. Mix together and bring it to a boil so that it allows the liquid to thicken a bit.  You don't want it to have a very thick consistency, but it should definitely not be watery.
3.  Finish with sesame oil and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Make sure to taste before adding salt as the black bean and soy sauce are salty already. It might not be necessary.

4.  Serve in a large curved plate and garnish with scallions.  This should be eaten with white/brown rice.  I topped mine with a sprinkle of black sesames seeds for a more dramatic touch.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ramp (Wild Leek) Pesto Pizza

So this is the last of it. Since I was too lazy this year to pickle my ramps, the last of them went into this crispy, gooey, cheesey ramp pizza. I wasn't planning on sharing another ramp recipe this season, but the pie came out so amazingly delicious that I just had to share it with everyone so you could make it at home.  With the heat from my spicy Asian ramp pesto, charred smoky fresh ramps, mozzarella, tangy goat cheese with a sprinkling of flaky Maldon salt, it was blow your mind good.

Don't worry if you don't have ramps as you can replace it with scallions, wild leeks, spinach, or arugula. Use any pesto you have on hand to replace my ramp pesto.
I used a pre-made whole wheat pizza dough, but again feel free to experiment and use any dough of your liking; if you're ambitious, make your own pizza dough. To achieve the crispness in my crust, I rolled the dough to about 1/2" thick and used a pizza crisper for the first time that my local Sur La Table recommended. I will never bake a pizza without it again. It achieved the extra crunchy, wood fire oven effect that I can never get at home. It would probably work great as a smoker that I plan on trying for my next pie. Ymmmm...I can't wait!!!

Serves 8

1 pre-made whole wheat pizza dough
4 tbsp white flour
5 tbsp ramp pesto or any homemade pesto
8 slices fresh unsalted mozzarella
10 ramp leaves, green part only
1/2 piece goat cheese or chèvre
2 tbsp grapeseed oil
Maldon salt or any flaky sea salt to top

1. Remove dough from fridge a half hour before using to let it come to room temperature.

2. Preheat oven to highest it can go. Mine was 495 degrees Fahrenheit.

3. On a large wooden board, cover lightly with 2 tbsp flour. Make sure dough is a round ball shape and dust with balance of flour.
4. Using a rolling pin, work from the center out using the ball of your hand. Slowly roll the dough into a circular shape until it is flattened to 1/2" thickness and covers a 14" pie crisper. Add more flour as needed if dough is sticky. It should be very easy to work with.
5. Move rolled out dough to the pan and using your hand stretch out dough to cover pan if needed.

6. Using a spoon, spread pesto out from middle to cover dough evenly. Leave about 1" uncovered from the edge for the crust.

7. Add mozzarella slices on top evenly. Lay ramp leaves one at a time next to each other. Add small tbsp of goat cheese, one at a time, evenly on pie. Using a pastry brush, lightly cover the crust with oil so that it turns a nice golden color.
8. Sprinkle Maldon salt or any flaky salt on top. Put into oven and bake for approximately 10 minutes until bubbly with golden brown crust. Don't worry if the ramp leaves are slightly charred. It will taste delicious!
9. Remove from oven and using a pizza cutter cut into 8 slices, moving quickly to avoid too much sticking. Serve immediately with your favorite glass of white wine.

Ramp pesto pizza porn.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Guacamole Wontons with Mexican Salsa Dip

This Saturday is the ultimate day for all those party-goers and drinkers: TWO major events to choose from.  Derby Day or Cinco de Mayo? Bourbon or margaritas? Big decisions here.  But who says you have to choose.

Soak up those mint juleps with these tasty guacamole wontons! Buttery mashed avocados, black beans, corn, cilantro and lime filled into a crispy pocket with just a touch of a creamy, tangy dip. Ymmmm...perfect easy, one-bite appetizers for your Cinco de Mayo party!

While making the wontons, don't be stingy with the egg adhesive. Make sure the entire length of the two sides where you will be folding the wontons and where the two points form the wrap receive full attention.  Otherwise, they will fall apart. As per my mother growing up, big no no. Follow the picture tutorials below and you will be making wontons like a pro with any filling of your choice!

The guacamole wontons can be made up to a week in advance and frozen once wrapped into wontons.  There should be no issue with the avocado being frozen. Defrost the morning you plan on frying the wontons. The dip should keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks.

Makes 20 wontons
For dip (makes 2 cups):
1 cup salsa
5 tbsp low fat cream cheese
1/4 cup cilantro

For wontons:
20 store-bought wonton skins
1 avocado, pitted and mashed
1/2 cup roasted corn kernels
1/2 cup canned black beans, washed
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped roughly
1 lime, juiced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 egg, beaten
2 cups canola oil

1. For dip, throw all ingredients in a food processor and season lightly with pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pulse on high until fully combined. Pour into reserve container and refrigerate until ready to use. Garnish with a sprig of fresh cilantro if desired.

2. For filling, mash avocado in a medium, non-reactive bowl. Add corn, black beans, cilantro and lime juice. Mix everything together. Season to taste.
3. In a small mixing bowl, beat one egg to be used as an adhesive to make sure the wontons stay closed.

4.  Lay out a clean baking sheet to place the completed wontons until ready to fry.  In the palm of your hand, place a wonton skin and scoop 1 tbsp of the filling in the center.  It does not need to be exact, just roughly a spoonful.
 5. Use egg to line the inside of two sides and fold in half into a triangle.  Press firmly to make sure it is securely closed. With two fingers, gently push out any excess air bubbles inside the wontons.

6. Pull two corners to overlap in the middle. Use a bit more of the egg wash on one end, stick together. Dab over the entwined corners to ensure it does not pull apart. Repeat until filling is gone. If using later, freeze until ready to use.
7. In a medium cast-iron pan, heat oil on medium high for several minutes until hot. You can test if the oil is ready with a piece of the wonton skin. If it starts sizzling almost immediately it is hot enough. Place each wonton into oil gently to prevent oil from spitting. Do not overcrowd the pan with wontons otherwise it will drop the temperature in the oil too much.

8. Fry on one side for several minutes until light golden brown. Flip and repeat on the other side. Remove to a paper towel lined plate to blot excess oil. Repeat until all wontons are done. Serve immediately while warm with the dip.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Spring Primavera Barley Risotto

Risotto. This Italian soul food dish is one of the easiest things to cook but one of the most difficult to achieve the proper texture. Most cook the risotto too dry, make the rice too mushy or too hard.

By definition, risotto is a rice cooked in a broth to a luscious, creamy consistency. The most common ingredients in risotto is broth, parmesan, butter and onion.  Within Italy, there are numerous variations of risotto: in Milan, risotto alla Milanese is made with beef stock, beef bone marrow, lard, cheese, and saffron similar to a Spanish paella; Piedmont, located in northern Italy by the mountainous Alps region, makes risotto al Barolo using red wine and may include sausage meat and/or Borlotti beans. Venetians cook one of my favorites, risotto al nero di seppia ("black risotto") made with cuttlefish cooked with their ink-sacs intact. Once you leave Italy, variations abound with most bases of the recipe remaining true to those four basic ingredients listed above.

Since I was out of arborio rice in the house, I decided to replace it with the barley and create a risotto using lighter, spring ingredients like sweet green zucchini, cherry tomatoes and plump crimini mushrooms. You can really use whatever you have on hand in your refrigerator and add chicken or shrimp if you desire. I wanted to keep the flavors really pure in this dish and celebrate the vegetables.

I started cooking with barley not for myself, but for my dog Tyler because I had read it was a very high fiber, high protein whole grain. The first few times I made it I didn't understand why he would eat everything except the barley. I was cooking it for 20 minutes which I thought sufficient. I later realized cooking it is similar to how I use the arborio rice for my risotto. The grains of barley need to be toasted on high for a minute to really release the nuttiness. Like arborio rice, cooking barley is a game in patience as it takes almost an hour to fully cook.

My finished barley risotto was perfect. Nutty with the natural chewiness of the barley, there was an earthiness from the mushroom and sweetness from the zucchini, tomatoes and fennel seeds.  I used less stock than usual for this risotto as the mushrooms released water when cooked. The addition of the butter at the end and parmesan added a rich, velvety creaminess to the risotto. I gobbled up every last bite and did not miss my usual proteins of chicken or shrimp.

A great tip I learned somewhere along the way in the early stages of my cooking in my early 20s was to use hot water in replacement of stock if not available.  I have used this tip several times in the past
15 years to no complaints.  I found out I didn't have any stock on hand and actually just used hot water in replacement for this recipe.

Bon appetito!!

Serves 2

1 cup pearl barley, rinsed in cold water a few times to remove starch
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 white onion, diced
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp herbes de Provence
1 cup crisp white wine (I used a viognier, but any crisp white wine will work.)
2 1/2 cups warm vegetable stock or broth
5 whole crimini mushrooms, sliced including stems
1/2 green zucchini, diced
1/2 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan-Reggiano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter

1. In a large stock pot over high, heat up oil and then add barley and toast for a minute until light golden brown.  Add onion, fennel and herbes de Provence. Sauté for another minute and using a wooden spoon, mix together.

2. Reduce heat to medium low. Add 1/2 cup of wine to pot and stir together, then let reduce until liquid is pretty much gone before adding the next 1/2 cup. Repeat process with stock, pouring 1/2 cup into the pot every time.  Stir occasionally to make sure it does not stick to the bottom of the pot. The whole cooking time for the barley should take between 40-50 minutes total.

3.  Before you add the last cup of stock, add mushrooms, zucchini and tomatoes.  If you add it too early, the vegetables will become too mushy and lose its beautiful colors. Before you add the last 1/2 cup of stock, add Parmesan, salt and pepper to taste. Stir together.

4.  Add the butter to finish when you notice the stock is almost cooked through.  You do not want it dry.  It should be slightly liquidy and fall off your wooden spoon easily with only a slight resistance. The butter will add the rich, creamy texture you are looking for.

5.  Serve immediately and top with more Parmesan. Drink the rest of that white wine you used for the risotto to the last drop.