Saturday, October 23, 2010

Szechuan Green Beans

I bought my carbon steel wok at a yard sale in San Francisco in 1986. I was living in the City and getting acquainted with all the glorious ethnic foods you could ever desire, and I was ready to try my hand at stir-fry - or so I thought. My various attempts at it were, well..... pathetic. What went so disastrously wrong? I had no idea how to approach wok cooking, so I acted like I was braising meat; I'd saute one ingredient, then keep adding the next until everything was in there. Wow, can you believe that treating it like a braised dish cooked quickly at high heat created a dish that was somewhere between a failed braise and a lousy stir-fry? The meat was gray, the broccoli was undercooked, the sauce was watery. Sigh. The wok went into deep storage for the next two decades, miraculously surviving several moves.

In the last two years I have started paying attention, reading recipes to understand the completely different structure of steps that a stir-fry requires. Then I dusted off that wok, and got brave. Now I get it; with wok cooking, unlike most Western-style cooking, you cook the ingredients in a certain order, removing them from the pan when they are done, cooking the next item, and then combining them all at the end. That's how you deal with the meat, which needs to be fried, and the broccoli, which needs to be steamed.

This recipe for Szechuan-style green beans comes from the same "best of the best of the best" America's Test Kitchen magazine that the light cheesecake recipe came from. This recipe is outstanding; I've made it three times in two weeks, experimenting with meats (leftover chicken, ground turkey, ground lamb) because the recipe called for 1/4 pound of ground pork, and the ground pork in my freezer is all in 5 pound packages, ready for the next sausage party.

As usual, I have adapted the recipe. As written, the recipe assumes we do not have access to the proper ingredients or tools. I think you should have the option of using either the ingredients commonly available in remote locations OR the traditional Chinese ingredients available to people who live in the city. Then, there is the question of tools. They tell us to use a non-stick skillet at high heat. Good lord. When I read a couple of years ago that the coating on non-stick skillets breaks down into a toxic gas at high temperatures and has actually killed people's pets, I got rid of all my non-stick skillets and started using my cast iron skillets almost exclusively. Think about it; where does that coating go when it gets scraped off while you're using your spatula to serve the eggs? That's right - into your eggs. Oh, I know we're supposed to use a plastic spatula to prevent the scraping. Do you know what happens to plastic at high heat? I know, I know, I'm an insane Berkeley woman, but I still recommend you get rid of the nonstick skillet; cast iron is so great! At the very least, DON'T use it at high temperature. I will now descend from the foodie soapbox and give you the recipe. You can substitute ground lamb or turkey, or leftover chicken for the pork, and faithful reader Demaris tells me she's been making it with tofu for her vegetarian friends for years - it is all dee-lish. Serve it with rice for a one-dish meal.

Szechuan Green Beans

adapted from America's Test Kitchen Best-Ever Recipes

2 TB soy sauce
2 TB water
1 TB Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp corn or tapioca starch
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp dry mustard

2 TB high smoke point oil - peanut, sunflower, or safflower
1 lb green beans - (Chinese long beans if you can get them) stem ends trimmed and cut into 2" lengths

1/4 pound ground pork (or lamb or turkey)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 TB minced fresh ginger

3 scallions (green onions) sliced thin
1 tsp toasted sesame oil

1. In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, water, sherry, sugar, starch, white and red peppers, and mustard until the sugar and the lumps dissolve.

2. Heat the oil in a wok or large cast iron skillet over high heat until just smoking. Add the beans and cook, stirring frequently, until crisp tender and the skins are shriveled and blackened in spots, 5-8 minutes. (Reduce heat to medium-high if the beans darken too quickly.) Transfer the beans to a large plate or bowl.

3. Reduce the heat to medium-high and add the pork to the now-empty wok or skillet. Cook, breaking the meat into small pieces, until no pink remains, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir the sauce to recombine and add the sauce, along with the beans, to the pan. Toss and cook until the sauce is thickened, 5-10 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the scallions and sesame oil. Serve immediately.

Notes: For a heartier use as a main course, increase the meat to 1/2 a pound, and add another 1 TB of soy sauce, 1 TB of water, 1 1/2 tsp rice wine/sherry, and another 1/2 tsp tapioca or corn starch.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Light New York-Style Cheesecake

A friend of mine was telling me the other day about how his ex and the ex's new partner generously had him over for dinner, finishing the meal with a home-made cheesecake. "I hate to complain;" he said, "it was so lovely of them to cook me dinner... but that cheesecake! They made a low fat version with tofu, and they pretended it was regular cheesecake, and it was just awful!"

I like cheesecake. Alright, I LOVE cheesecake! And I've eaten some quite decent lowfat cheesecakes in my day, none of which involved tofu. My mother used to make one that I quite enjoyed; however, you could tell it was low-fat, because the large quantities of cottage cheese gave it a grainy quality. So when I made an impulse purchase of America's Test Kitchen Best-Ever Recipes at the check-out line at Berkeley Bowl Grocery and found a recipe in it for a delectable sounding light cheesecake, I was pretty excited. Although I get bored with their writing style, I appreciate the Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated's scientific approach to perfecting a recipe, and this one sounded like a winner. It wasn't long before I made the recipe. Results? A cheesecake for the ages. And if you decide to conceal its low-fat nature from your guests, I don't think any of them will go home and complain about how you tried to slip some tofu over on them!

One note: their recipe calls for straining low-fat yoghurt for 12 hours to make a concentrated "yoghurt cheese." I couldn't understand why they didn't just use Greek-style yoghurt, which is already strained, so that's what I did. (I especially like Fage brand, which is now made in up-state New York near my father-in-law's hometown.) The recipe below reflects this adaptation. If you choose to do it their way, strain 2 cups of lowfat yoghurt in a cheesecloth lined strainer over a bowl (make sure there is no pectin in the yoghurt!) for 12 hours, until you have 1 cup of yoghurt cheese.

p.s. I never did get around to making the strawberry topping - we liked the cake just fine straight up!

Light New York-Style Cheesecake with Strawberry Topping

Adapted from America's Test Kitchen Best-Ever Recipes

9 whole graham crackers (5 oz) broken into rough pieces, ground into fine even crumbs in food processor
4 TB (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 TB sugar

1 lb 1% cottage cheese
1 lb light cream cheese, room temp (see note)
8 oz (1 cup) lowfat Greek yoghurt
1 1/2 cups (10.5 oz) sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2-1 tsp grated zest from 1 lemon
1 TB vanilla extract
3 large eggs, room temp
nonstick cooking spray

1 lb strawberries (about 1 qt) washed, dried, hulled, cut lengthwise into 1/4" wedges
1/4 c sugar
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup strawberry jam
1 TB lemon juice (from the lemon you've zested)

Notes: Okay, you know all these ingredients have to be organic, right? Especially the lemon! If you are using the zest (skin) of a fruit that's been sprayed with pesticides and/or wax in your cheesecake - yuck! On the light cream cheese: don't use fat-free cream cheese or tofu substitute - feh. That stuff has I-don't-know-what coagulant in it, and the consistency is foul. Light cream cheese is the stuff that usually comes whipped in a container; it's lower fat than Neufch√Ętel.

1. Take the eggs, cream cheese, yoghurt, and cottage cheese out of the refrigerator so they can come to room temperature.

2. Pre-heat your oven to 325 F, and put your rack in the middle position.

For the Crust:

3. In a medium bowl, combine the sugar and graham cracker crumbs, and stir in the melted butter until all is well combined. Press evenly into the bottom of a 9" springform pan, including over the joint where the top clasps the bottom.

4. Put the pan onto a baking sheet, and bake until the crust is fragrant and beginning to brown, 10-15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Raise the temperature to 500 degrees F.

For the Filling:

5. Meanwhile, line a strainer with a clean dish towel or several paper towels, and place it over a bowl or pan. Add the cottage cheese, and strain for 30 minutes.

6. Process the strained cottage cheese into your food processor until smooth, scraping down sides of processor as needed, about 1 minute.

7. Add the cream cheese and Greek yoghurt and process until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

8. Add the sugar, salt, lemon zest and vanilla, and process until smooth, about 1 minute, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed.

9. With the motor running, add 1 egg at a time and process until smooth.

10. Being careful not to disturb the baked crust, spray the exposed portions of the pan with cooking spray. Set the pan on the baking sheet and pour in the filling.

11. Bake for 10 minutes at 500 F. Without opening the door, reduce the temperature to 200 F, and continue to bake until the center of the cheesecake registers 150 F on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 1/2 hours. The center will be solid.

12. Transfer the cake onto a wire cooling rack, and run a paring knife around the edges of the cake to loosen. Cool at room temperature until barely warm, around 2 1/2 to 3 hours, running the knife around the edges about once an hour. Then wrap the cake up and refrigerate it.

For the Topping:

13. Toss the berries with the sugar and salt in a medium bowl and let macerate for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved.

14. Process the jam in the small bowl of your food processor (or use your invaluable immersion blender - even better!) until smooth.

15. Transfer the jam to a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer, stirring frequently, until no longer frothy, about 3 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice, then gently stir the warm jam into the strawberries. Cover and refrigerate until cold.

To serve: Wrap a hot kitchen towel around the pan and let it stand for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan and blot the moisture from the top of the cake. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before slicing. Serve with the strawberry topping.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Leek and Potato Soup with Kale

This summer I subscribed to an organic CSA box from the youth teaching garden in our neighborhood, Berkeley Youth Alternatives. "CSA" = Community Supported Agriculture - subscribers pay up front to get a mixed weekly box of whatever produce is ready that week. It's a huge support to the farmer, and a lot of fun to look inside and find the lovely surprises of the week. My box sometimes held strawberries, kale, chard, lettuce, onions, apples, collards, tomatoes, beets, apricots..... and many of the weeks it held leeks and/or potatoes.

I had a little trouble keeping up with all the perishables we were receiving, but leeks and potatoes will keep for weeks and weeks, so by the last week of the subscription I had a nice collection built up of gorgeous yellow and red potatoes, a number of leeks, and a bunch of kale in the refrigerator.

Leek and potato soup; what a lovely dish. So delicious, yet so simple that you don't even need a recipe for it once you have the concept down. In fact, I wasn't going to do an entry on it here, but.....

Since I had a nice supply of ingredients, I made a very big batch, which I shared with neighbors who are in need of a little extra support right now. German, the main cook in the family, described for me how he had come home from working the late shift to find a tiny portion of soup left for him by the rest of the family. He tried to analyze the ingredients as he wiped the bowl clean with a stack of tortillas, and he quizzed me on them as we waited together at the school bus stop. He really, really, really liked it, and he really, really wanted the recipe, so.....

Now, there are tons of different recipes out there, and I'm sure they are all delicious. Many of them call for heavy cream and butter; this recipe gets its thick consistency and richness from the potatoes alone.

Because leeks are often piled with soil to keep them pale and tender, they usually have dirt sandwiched between their layers. To clean them, slice off the root end and the tough, dark green end. Peel off the tough outer layer. Then slice the top end of the leek about halfway down its length. Under running water, spread the layers apart and rinse out any stray mud.

Special equipment: The immersion blender, a hand-held wand with a blade at the end, is an invaluable tool for creaming soups, making salad dressings, mixing up a batch of fresh mayonnaise or aioli, and blending smoothies. They cost about $20-25 at kitchenware shops such as Bed, Bath and Beyond. Otherwise, a blender, food processor, or in a pinch, potato masher will do.

Leek and Potato Soup with Kale

1 lb smoked sausage, sliced in half lengthwise, then sliced into 1/2 moons 1/4 - 1/3" thick
3-4 leeks, trimmed of root ends, white and pale green parts only, sliced thinly
3-4 TB olive oil or butter
4-6 medium sized potatoes, any variety
6-8 cups chicken or vegetable broth (if you don't have any homemade stock on hand, I like Better Than Bouillon organic)
1 bunch kale, washed, dried, ribs cut out, and sliced into bite-sized pieces
salt and pepper to taste

1. Brown the sliced sausage in 2 TB of olive oil over medium high heat, stirring frequently. Using a slotted spoon, remove the sausage from the pan and reserve.

2. Reduce heat to low; if needed, add additional oil. Add leeks, stir until coated with fat. Cover and allow to "sweat" in its own moisture, stirring occasionally and adjusting heat, until tender, about 5 minutes. Do not brown the leeks; they should be pale and soft.

3. Meanwhile, put the broth in a large stock pot and turn flame to medium high.

4. Wash and dry potatoes, and cut away any blemishes, eyes, sprouts, or green spots. (When exposed to sun, potatoes can turn green. This is toxic and should be composted.) Cut into medium sized dice, and add to stock pot.

5. Bring stock and potatoes to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until tender.

6. When leeks are ready, add them to the potatoes and broth.

7. When potatoes are tender, remove from heat, and using an immersion blender, blender, or food processor, cream the soup. A few chunks are fine. (If you don't have one of these tools, you can use a potato masher. The soup won't be as creamy, but it will still be good.)

8. Add several generous turns of fresh ground black or white pepper, and adjust the seasonings as needed.

9. Add the chopped kale. The heat of the soup will be enough to cook it, while you complete dinner preparations.

10. Put a spoonful of sausage in each bowl, and then cover with a healthy serving of soup.

Serve with a nice hearty bread, such as Levain, and butter.