Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Beet Rösti, played with

And yet another Minimalist recipe that I love, and that I've made in many different versions - Mark Bittman's Beet Rosti. The original recipe (red beets, rosemary) is wonderful. It's super easy to prepare if you have a food processor with a blade - here it is before it goes in the pan. It doesn't look complicated to make, does it?

But I also play around with it. Often. I probably make one or another version of it every two weeks. Today's version was yellow beets (much more photogenic, though not as sweet) with parsley. You start the same way, peel and shred the beets, add salt, pepper, parsley and flour, toss. Then get a pan ready with some butter in it, and bake the pancake over medium heat for 10 minutes.

Now comes the only tricky part of the preparation - flip the pancake over on a flat plate or a lid.

Yum, can you see how nicely it's browned? Add a bit more butter to the pan, and carefully slide it from the lid back into the pan. Don't worry if it falls apart a bit, just push it together. 10 minutes later you'll have some very good tasting very healthy lunch or light dinner on your plate. Since hubby is here and hungry, I made a cheese omelette with it. (I should probably make an omelette blog entry. Ever since we watched Julie and Julia we're into omelettes. I've gotten pretty good with them!)

What other versions have I made?

  • Substitute one or two of the beets with a potato
  • Substitute one beet with some sweet potato or yam - a bit dangerous because the yams don't hold their shape very well, but still worth it.
  • Use carrots. Really good as well, well worth trying
  • Add some very finely minced shallot to give it some zing
  • And of course - play around with the herbs. Rosemary is nice, but I also love thyme, oregano, parsley and cilantro in it. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chinese Cucumber and Radish Salads

One more post covering the cooking class in Beijing - two quick, yummy summer salads. The cucumber salad is actually one of my favorites when I go out for dinner in China, it's always good, and very refreshing. The radish was new for me, but perhaps it's a regional Beijing or Northern China specialty as I found it that night in my roadside restaurant.

The radishes we got where HUGE! They were watermelon radish, just about 10 times bigger than any I had seen before. And like all watermelon radishes, jut very beautiful to look at. They are hard to find, at least in California, but a daikon or just small radishes will work just as well.


Preparation for both of them was very straight forward: The cucumbers first got a good smack with the cleaver, to break them up a little and allow them to take the dressing a little better. Then they were cut in 1/2" cubes. Very easy and quick.


The cook helping Chunyi was very good with the cleaver, as you can see from her slicing and julienning the radish. I think I can do it with my Santoku knife, but there is no chance I can do it with a Chinese cleaver. But then I guess if that's what you cut everything with you improve over the years :-)

The dressings: The cucumber got very finely smashed garlic, run through mortar and pestle for a minute or so. We added salt, light soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar and a bit of chili paste - pour it over the salad and mix. The radish was even easier, 1 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of sugar, and vinegar to taste. Done!


The bowls on the left show the salads before the dressing, the right is with the dressing. Resist the urge to add sesame or other oil to the radish salad - I tried it and there really isn't any improvement to the taste, it's much better oil free, for a nice fresh and clean taste, perfect for an accompaniment to a summer dinner.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Asparagus Pesto with Gnocchi

It's asparagus season I guess, and this year there seems to be a proliferation of asparagus pesto recipes. I saw them on Bittman's blog, in Epicurious and in Food & Wine, so I decided to give it a try. After a few miserable weeks last year having what I found out recently was Pine Mouth (more info for example here: I'm staying away from pine nuts as good as I can. Soooo.... What nuts to use in the asparagus pesto? Since the asparagus has a very delicate flavor I wanted a delicately flavored nut, so I settled on macadamia. A bit of garlic, the best olive oil that I own, macadamia, blanched asparagus, and Pecorino it was.

A quick whiz in the food processor until it all comes together, then some salt and pepper, but something was missing. Bittman mentions that he needed to add lemon, and since I had a beautiful lemon from a friend's backyard I added both lemon zest and lemon juice.

The result was great, while it missed the first bite flavor punch that your traditional pesto packs, it had a sublime quality, green and fresh and pretty wonderful.

Trying to keep the carbs down I made ricotta gnocchi, cute to look at but I think I had too little ricotta and too much flour for a pretty heavy dumpling. Not bad, just not something to write home about. And even less something to blog about.

Putting it all together: Finally, after spending my twenties making either really dry or really oily pasta with pesto, I cooked pesto with an Italian. You'll probably all shake your heads that I didn't know these tricks, but I'm a German, what do I know about pasta? The tricks I learned were:

  • Cut up a potato in 1/2" cubes, and cook it with the pasta.
  • Save some of your pasta water to thin down the pesto.
  • Heat the pesto in the pasta pot while the pasta is draining, and thin it to a nice saucy consistency with the saved pasta water.

In the US, it seems popular to thin the pesto down with cream, but imho there is enough fat in the pesto already, and the cream tends to hide flavors - not my favorite thing with pesto.

I mix the pasta with the pesto in the pot. If you used the potato, that goes in with it, it'll almost completely melt into the sauce and give it a very nice consistency and flavor. Try it one of these days. I know it sounds odd...

So here they are, a great little lunch! Some cut up arugula on top, then some more pecorino and ground black pepper - yum!


Really, no recipe. In my opinion, pesto is a great opportunity to play with tastes. Just take the basics: some herbs (or asparagus), nuts, hard, salty cheese, and really good EVOO. Put in the mortar (for traditionalists) or a little food processor and off you go. If it needs punch when you taste it just adjust with salt and pepper, and perhaps a little lemon juice.

I've made crazy pestos like cilantro hazelnut, I've added chiles, I've used pumpkin seed in lieu of nuts, it always comes out good!

My new favorite wine bar in town serves something really close in taste as a crostini: Take a slice of bread, toast it, put a slice of cheese on (manchego would work well, or ricotta salate), and then spread some of the pesto on it. Charge 2 bucks.

I should make hubby pay me for dinner tonight!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dumpling Class in one of Beijing's Hutongs

What to do when I'm away from my kitchen? Find another kitchen to cook in. In Beijing, I found Chunyi Zhou's kitchen hidden away in one of the old hutong neighborhoods. Finding is the key word here - finding her online is easy when you're looking for cooking classes in Beijing. Finding her kitchen is a bit more challenging, it's deep inside this maze of alleys:

The dumpling class was what was available on the one day I had, so dumplings it was. At first I wasn't very excited about it, but it was better than walking around in the heat all day. But it was worth it, and the first thing I made when I came back home yesterday was - you guessed it - dumplings.

You start off with chopping the veggies that go in the dumplings. Most everybody's favorite were the cabbage pork dumplings. For that you start with finely chopping 100g chinese cabbage, and then mixing in 1/2 teaspoon salt to pull the water out of the cabbage. Put it aside, and let it sit. For beef dumplings, mince 50g cilantro or spring onions.

Next make the dough: For 16 dumplings, use 120g bread or AP flour and 60ml water. (White whole wheat uses 80ml water. Of course Chinese would never do that but I actually liked the flavor). Slowly mix the water into the flour, then knead the dough until it comes together nicely and the gluten develops, about 5 to 10 minutes if kneading by hand. Form the dough into an egg and let rest for at least 10 minutes.

To make the filling, put 100g ground pork into a bowl. Add 1 tsp diced ginger, 1 tsp spring onion, 1 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp light soy sauce, 1 tsp rice wine, and 1 tsp sesame oil. Add vegetable water, and mix furiously until mixture thickens. Add squeezed vegetable and mix well.

For beef dumplings, if you have also add 1/2 tsp dark soy sauce. For lamb, also add some Sichuan peppers.

Back to the dough: Roll the dough into a log, 1" thick. Then cut in 16 pieces, about 1/2" wide. (At least that's what I was taught, I find that I get about 25 pieces, but I prefer my dumpling skins thin, and my dumplings on the smaller side.)

Push the pieces back into round globs, then press them into round flat discs with the palm of your hand. Next, use Asian rolling pin, about 1" diameter and 12" to 14" long, to roll out the dumpling skins. Rather than rolling over the entire dumpling use your right hand to roll the pin, and your left hand to rotate the skins by about 1/10 of a turn between rolls. Only roll to about the middle so that the middle stays a little thicker than the outside.

Now take the wrapper in your left hand (I'm a righty btw, switch the instructions if you're a leftie), then add some filling, then fold the dumpling shut by pinching a little of the dough, then pressing it onto the dumpling, then pinching the next bit and pressing it on the dough, until you run out of dough.

Here is how my dumplings look when they are done:

These dumplings either get steamed or boiled for 8-10 minutes. For fried dumplings, you can cheat with the wrapping, and just close them on the top of the half round, leaving the ends open. Now all the hard work is done and you're almost eating:

For pan frying, put them in the wok, fry until they are slightly browned, then add some water and close the lid. After the water has evaporated fry a little longer, to crisp them again, then serve.

Oh, we forgot the dipping sauce! It's basically a mixture of mashed up garlic, vinegar and soy sauce. I also like ginger in mine, but I think that's totally up to personal tastes. If you have a Chinese grocery store nearby, try to find at least 3 yr old Shanxi vinegar, it's nice and dark and sweet, a bit like a Chinese, not quite so sweet version of Balsamico.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Soup Dumplings and other Chinese Street Food

Going to China for business is fun. Ok, not the business part - think of sitting in multi-hour meetings in Mandarin, with the occasional English question - but the evenings and weekends often are great food adventures.

Saturday morning I set out to find the perfect soup dumpling in Shanghai. Ok, the locals probably have their well kept secrets, but I trusted Google and went to Jia Jia Tang Bao, a very popular hole in the wall, judging from the line outside. No English menu and no other round-eye in the line told me that it was probably a pretty good choice. After a 30 minute wait in the sun I finally made my way inside. Ordering was pretty straight forward - they had about 10 different variants, from 9 RMB to 20 RMB, so I pointed to the cheapest which I hoped was the pork only dumpling. I did miss the special dipping sauce, which was probably the 1 RMB item. I'll try that the next time. I made do with the condiments on the table: soy sauce, vinegar and some hot chili sauce.

The dumplings were divine, a very thin shell, a light filling, and perfect broth. I was seated next to the kitchen where 5 girls were making the dumplings at an eye-popping pace. See that huge pile of filling - that was gone when I left about 20 minutes later. Will have to go back next time I'm in Shanghai and try their other varieties, with shrimps or crabmeat mixed in the pork.

Saturday night at Beijing's foodstreet was an colorful, bustling feast. This stand was probably the most surprising - the Chinese version of Gyros!

Getting back to my hotel later in the evening I found the Beijing version of a Biergarten across the street. Three restaurants had tables outside, and the place was humming with activity, but I was too tired to partake.

In Chongqing, I had some time to kill before going to the airport, so our rep took me to an old town with another foodstreet. Chongqing is in Sichuan, so of course the main theme was peppers. The fried, dried peppers were delicious, not very hot, filled with a mixture consisting mainly of sesame and sugar, or mixed with peanuts. I had way too many of them, but luckily we sat down for a tea (for the Chinese) and beer (for me). (It was hot and humid, and just watching them drink tea made me sweat!).


Watching the guys make their food was fun, they made a big show of it! The guy on the left started out with a big pot of glutinous rice, which went at with that big pestle until it was beat into a paste. We bought some of it, and it was nice, though not outstanding. The guy on the right was making noodles. It was very interesting: The dough was not very sticky, but quite hard when he hit on it with his hand, yet it ran through the holes into the water pretty quickly. The noodles looked wheat based, but the dough clearly didn't. He turned them into little packages almost like Ramen... Will have to come back and try...

Sunday afternoon I took a cooking class where I learned to make dumplings - stay tuned for this afternoon's blog about dumpling-making.