Saturday, December 29, 2012

Here's what's on the table for New Year's Eve weekend

I think about food.  A lot.  At any given moment I can be recounting many a delicious meal I've indulged on (Greg is always remarking on my incredible "food memory").  When I'm not recollecting, I'm looking ahead.  There are few questions more delightful to ask myself than what to eat for breakfast/lunch/dinner or serve at the next party I throw.  The sole thing to top that question is where to spend my next vacation.  Only my love of travel trumps my love of food.

So, naturally, the first thing that came to mind yesterday when I deplaned for a layover en route to NY was what foods to prepare during the long weekend.  I have four glorious days to spend in the kitchen before I return to work.  Far away from my stash of cookbooks and magazines, I headed to the nearest newsstand for some inspiration.  I picked up Food & Wine Magazine, and together with a copy of "Apron Anxiety" (part memoir, part cookbook, it's a fun and engaging read for foodies and memoir-lovers alike) which I was traveling with, I settled into a comfy couch and contentedly did some meal planning.

In the course of just an hour, I cobbled together a menu that I'm excited about.  From Food & Wine magazine I chose Hippie-Style Egg Salad Sandwich; Asian-Brined Pork Loin; and Stir-Fried Noodles with Roast Pork (to be made with the left-over pork).  From Apron Anxiety: Easy, Asian-Inspired Fish (the name doesn't do it justice: this recipe calls for bread crumbs, ground ginger, hoisin sauce, and mustard powder); and Easy Pizza after a Tough Time (I'm thinking of using rich, buttery burrata).  Add to the menu Banana-Bacon-Stuffed French Toast with Hazelnut-Chocolate (a recipe I squirreled away last month for a special treat), I think I'm set for a few days at least!

Now onto what desserts to bake ...

Friday, December 28, 2012

Japanese home cooking: Tempura

Fried food that is light, airy, and crisp.  
Really, what can be better than that?

I spent a week at my parents' home for the holidays.  During my visits, my mother always indulges me with the Japanese home cooking I grew up with.  Last night was no exception: she served a delicious meal of tempura. 

Tempura is a very popular Japanese dish made of vegetables and/or seafood that have been battered and deep-fried.  Ingredients in traditional tempura include bell pepper, carrot, eggplant, green beans, pumpkin, sweet potato, prawn, shrimp, and white fish.  Really almost any kind of vegetable and seafood will do, but in keeping with the Japanese culinary tradition, the use of seasonal, fresh ingredients is key.   

I recently discovered that the origins of tempura can be traced back to the Portuguese.  During the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries and traders made frequent visits to the country to establish trade and export Christianity.  While in Japan, the Portuguese also introduced batter-coated deep frying, which came to be incorporated into the Japanese diet as tempura.

Adapted from my mother Naoko's recipe.  Serves 4-6

Vegetables and/or seafood of your choice

Cut, wash, and dry the vegetables and seafood. (Slice the 
bell pepper and eggplant into strips, cut carrots into matchsticks, leave green beans whole (just cutting off the tips), peel and slice onions into rings and pumpkin and sweet potato into rounds.  Remove heads and shells from prawns and shrimp leaving tails intact and devein.  Rinse the fish (any white fish fillet can be used) and leave whole or cube.)  Lay your veggies and seafood on a paper towel to extract any residual moisture.

Tip: Drying the surface of the ingredients completely helps keep the batter crisp as well as stick better to the ingredients.  Also, most recipes don't call for this, but my mother lightly flours the ingredients before dipping them in the batter.  To do this: Place about 1/2 cup of flour in a paper bag.  Place a handful of ingredients at a time in the bag, close, and shake to coat.

Heat vegetable oil (about 4-6 cups) over high heat until it reaches 375 degrees.

Prepare the batter. Combine 1 large egg, 1 cup cold water, 1/2 - 1 cup all-purpose flour, and a pinch of corn starch.  Mix using chopsticks for only a few seconds, taking care not to over-mix.

Tip: Make the batter only once you're ready to begin deep-frying.  Use cold water for the batter, as this prevents the batter from absorbing too much oil. Also, leave lumps in the batter.  Batter turns heavy and thick, and becomes chewy and dough-like when fried, when allowed to sit too long or stirred too much (over-mixing results in activation of gluten).  

Dip each ingredient in the batter to give it a thin, almost transparent coating.  Drop ingredients one at a time into the oil.  (Smaller pieces like the matchstick carrots should be fried in little bundles.) Fry in small batches (no more than 6-8 pieces at a time).  Fry until pieces are puffy and very light golden, depending on the piece about 1-2 minutes. 

Transfer pieces to paper towels or a draining rack to drain.

Serve, piping hot, with dipping sauce of your choice.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

New Mexico Style Tacos

I've eaten at some of the city's top restaurants and sampled some amazing meals during my travels, but when asked what my favorite dish is, I still answer with "My mother's New Mexico style tacos." 

My mother knows this, and so on my first night here at my parents' for the holidays, she prepared me some tacos.

What makes these tacos unique is that potatoes are tossed in with the main filling (in this case, ground beef).  My father, who was raised in a Native American household in New Mexico, explained to me that the tradition of using potatoes originated with the very practical purpose of stretching the budget: a little meat goes a long way when served with potatoes.  The tradition of using potatoes continues into today mainly for the flavor it adds to the dish.  The ground beef and potatoes are stuffed into a corn tortilla piled high with fresh garnishes, like leafy greens, tomatoes, and avocado, transforming the humble taco into a not-so-ordinary meal

New Mexico Style Tacos

Adapted from my mother Naoko's recipe.  Serves 4-6

For the filling
2 potatoes, peeled and diced (Russet potatoes are not recommended as they fall apart easily)
1 lb lean ground beef
1 small onion, chopped

For the garnish

1/4 cup diced white onion
1/2 cup chopped lettuce
1/2 cup diced tomatoes
1 ripe avocado*
shredded cheese
soft-shelled corn tortillas
oil (for frying)

Dice potato into 1/4 inch cubes.  Chop onions. 
In a large skillet, brown beef.  Set meat aside and drain excess fat from pan.

In same frying pan, saute onions until translucent, about 4 minutes.  

Return meat to pan and add potatoes and seasoning**.  Cover and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.

Heat oil in small frying pan until hot.  

Deep fry the corn tortilla, and pat excess oil with paper towel.

To the tortilla, add the beef and potato filling.  

Top with garnish.

Serve immediately.


*To make guacamole, add to the avocado some chopped tomatoes, white onion, garlic powder, and a splash of lime juice.

**1 taco seasoning packet may be used, along with 1/2 cup water.

Alternatively, to make your own seasoning, combine the following:
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water

My father, enjoying food he grew up on.  It's his favorite dish, too!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Chocolate Bread Pudding 

(Reflections of Mohonk Mountain House)

I just returned from a blissful weekend at Mohonk Mountain House, a historic Victorian castle tucked in the Hudson Valley.  My boyfriend Greg and I had spent our days alternating between hiking and exploring the beautiful grounds, nestled with tea and cookies in front of the roaring fire, and feasting on scrumptious meals prepared by the hotel's award-winning chefs.

Of course, no description of Mohonk would be complete without a mention of the desserts (they alone are enough to entice me back, and in a hurry, too).  Blueberry corn bread topped with buttery maple syrup.  Warm apple cobbler drizzled with caramel sauce.  Napoleon crisp with vanilla bean custard and fresh berries.  Choux à la Crème garnished with warm chocolate sauce.  These are just a few of the treats that we sampled.

And then there are the bread puddings, my favorite of all of Mohonk's desserts: apple bread pudding, cinnamon bread pudding, chocolate espresso bread pudding.  

Nothing is more comforting to me on a cold winter day than warm bread pudding.  And so it seems fitting, as I reflect back on my time at Mohonk, to try my hand at making some chocolate bread pudding.

I've read conflicting advice on whether to use day-old bread.  Some say that dry bread delivers the best results.  The theory is that when the moisture inside of the bread is lost, the bread is better able to absorb more liquid.  Others points out that only a very small amount of moisture really leaves bread that's left out, so fresh bread will perform just as well as stale bread.  Still others say that crisping the bread first (by putting it into the oven for a few minutes) will give the bread pudding more texture when it's baked. 

There is also the question of what kind of bread to use.  There seems to be an endless array of suitable breads to choose from: French baguette, croissant, brioche, crusty sourdough, challah.  And the list goes on.

I opted to use day-old challah bread and a recipe from Gourmet magazine that I found on

I was a bit crunched for time (I should know better: to be rushed is a cardinal sin in baking), and so I cut down on a few steps.  I soaked the bread in the liquid mixture for only 15 minutes before baking, and I took the bread pudding out of the oven after 45 minutes.

The results (I'm pleased to write, despite the shortcuts): rich, gooey, decadent, morsels of heaven. 
The texture can be improved for next time.  The bottom layer had more the consistency of pudding.  I think I can remedy that by using a more dense bread, more of it, and baking it for closer to an hour.  But all in all, a comforting classic for the holiday season.


Recipe: adapted from Gourmet magazine (February 2004)
Yield: serves 10-12 

  • 1 (12-inch) piece day-old baguette, cut into 1/3-inch slices, then slices halved crosswise (4 cups)
  • 3 cups half-and-half
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 10 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits

Generously butter a 2 1/2- to 3-quart soufflé dish. Put bread in dish.

Heat half-and-half, sugar, and salt in a 2-quart saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is hot but not boiling. Remove from heat and add chocolate, then let stand 2 minutes. Whisk until smooth. 

Lightly beat eggs together in a large bowl and slowly add chocolate mixture, whisking until combined. Stir in vanilla. Pour mixture over bread and let soak at room temperature, pressing bread down occasionally, 1 hour.

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325°F.

Dot top of pudding with butter bits. Bake in a hot water bath until edge is set but center still trembles slightly, 45 minutes to 1 hour. 

Cool pudding to warm in dish on a rack. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Scones!  (Who else's but Alice's Tea Cup?)

Alice's Tea Cup, hands down, serves the best scones in NYC.  I took my sister and niece there during Thanksgiving week, when they came here for a visit from California.  I had, for the second time in just a week, Alice's Tea Cup's pumpkin scones.  A moist little pocket of perfection.

What I didn't try then was the mixed berry scone, which I most definitely will on my next foray there.   But first - I thought I would try my hand at making them!  

The recipe calls for 4 kinds of berries: blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, and strawberry.  Not being a fan of blackberries, I simply substituted in more blueberries and strawberries.  To add the berries into the mixture, you can puree them in a blender and incorporate into the batter, or simply combine them in whole (with the exception of the strawberries, which are cut into quarters).  I love the burst of fruit when biting into any kind of baked fruit treat, so I opted for the latter.

Here are a few scone-making tips I learned along the way this morning:

Scones don't require very much working counter space.  What they do need, though, is a well-floured surface (not excessively, but just so) to lightly pat down the dough before cutting out the scones.  I found the perfect baking tool to assist me: a non-slip pastry mat.  Lay it down on your countertop, flour it, and work away!  The one I bought on Amazon was large enough (18"x24") that not a sprinkle of flour even got onto my countertop.  It makes clean-up *nearly* enjoyable.  Brilliant. 

pastry mat

Also, once you're ready to cut out the scones, roll out the dough first into a ball.  That helps to pat it down into an *even* disc.  This being only the second time I've made a scone, I learned the hard way.  I gathered the dough mixture from the bowl in my hands, and (gently) plopped it down onto the mat.  The result: a bit of a gooey mess with very uneven edges.

a gooey mess
And finally, I learned that with a bit of patience and a lot of enthusiasm, a novice's scones can come out looking *and* tasting great.  Not quite like they make it at Alice's Tea Cup, but delicious, nonetheless.

The recipe can be found in "Alice's Tea Cup: Delectable Recipes for Scones, Cakes, Sandwiches, and More from New York's Most Whimsical Tea Spot," by Haley Fox & Lauren Fox, available on amazon.