Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chinese New Year – Ginger Beef Stir Fry

Monday, January 23rd marks Chinese New Year for 2009. This is the Year of the Ox. What better way to celebrate than by eating a Beef Stir Fry?

Stir frying cooks nicely chopped vegetables and meats very quickly in a small amount of oil over high heat. This makes stir frying one of the fastest and healthiest ways of cooking. This classic combination of beef and ginger is an aromatic and delicious way of celebrating Chinese New Year.

Ginger Beef Stir Fry

Making good stir fry starts with cutting the ingredients. Slice them fine, no more than 1/4 inch thick and about 2 inches long. The beed should be sliced thinly, against the grain, and at a bias. The idea is to maximize the surface area so that everything cooks quickly and evenly. If you don't have a wok, a deep non-stick frying pan will do nicely. Don't let the pan get more than about 1/3 full, until the end. Every piece of food needs to have room to touch the sides and bottom of the pan.


8 oz. Chinese egg noodles or Ramen
3 Tablespoons peanut oil
6 green onions, sliced on a bias into 2 inch lengths
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks, OR 2 teaspoons crushed ginger
4 medium carrots, julienned
1/2 cup thinly sliced green cabbage
1 stalk celery, sliced thinly on a bias
3/4 pound top round or flank steak, pounded and sliced into thin, strips
2 tablespoons cooking sherry
4 tablespoons soy sauce

Prepare all the ingredients before hand and put them in separate bowls. I clean and save used cottage cheese and sour cream containers just for this. This is quick cooking. You won't have time in between steps to get things ready. You want to be able to just grab and go.

Bring plenty of hot water to a boil in a large pot and remove from heat. Drop the noodles into the water to soak them while you continue with the recipe.

Place a wok or deep non-stick frying pan over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes until very hot. Add a drop of oil. If it sizzles a bit when it hits the bottom, you're ready.

Add the remaining oil and swirl to coat the sides. Reduce the heat to medium high and heat the oil just until it starts to smoke. Watch carefully because this happens pretty fast.

Drop the green onion and ginger into the hot oil. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon or cooking chopsticks for about 1 minute, coating them with the oil.

Push the green onions and ginger to the cooler side of the wok, or remove them completely from the pan. Add the carrots, peppers, and celery and cook in the same way, stir-frying for about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the pan.

Add the sliced beef to the pan and cook on each side briefly, just to get some color. Return the cooked vegetables to the pan and stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes more.

Push the other ingredients to the side and pour in the cooking sherry directly onto a hot section of the pan. Let it simmer briefly to burn off the alcohol. Add the soy sauce and stir into the beef and vegetables.

Drain the noodles and add to the pan. Toss to combine with the other ingredients. Taste, adding more soy sauce if you like. Serve immediately. Sprinkle with parsley to garnish, if you like.

Serves 4.

Picture by Thier Aquino.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How to Sharpen Your Kitchen Knives

Last year I talked a little about what kinds of knives you might want to get for your kitchen. Today I'd like to offer this great video on how to sharpen your knives. It comes from Chef Benjamin Christie. He's interviewing Leigh Hudson of The Chefs Armoury in Australia. It's a great primer on knife sharpening and is just fun to watch. Chef Ben even has his own You Tube Channel, so you might want to check the other videos he has, as well.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Spice Primer, or, “What's that spice for, again?”

I've heard it said that variety is the spice of life. Given the variety of spices that can be used in food, I can see why.

Spices are different from herbs in that herbs come almost solely from leafy green sources and can be used fresh. Most spices are dried and ground, although there are some exceptions. Ginger, for example, comes from a root and can be used either fresh, or dried.

Freshly ground spices have intense flavor, but they quickly loose their power. Because of this, I prefer buying them in small quantities, not in big bulk containers. This can put you at odds with your long term food storage. If, like me, you're trying to build a year's worth of food storage, buy the whole seeds when you can and then grind them in small quantities to put them in your kitchen. I bought an inexpensive spice grinder just for this. Store your spices, whole or ground, in airtight containers in a cool dark place to help retain their flavor.

If you buy your spice seeds whole, leave them that way until you're ready to use them. The spice seeds can be heated in a dry skillet over high heat for a minute or two to enhance their flavor. Just make sure you keep tossing the seeds around so they don't burn.

Cardamom has a strong flavor and lemony aftertaste. It's used in many Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, especially sweet ones. When bought whole, the seed pods need to be spit open to get to the seeds inside.

Cinnamon has a subtle, spicy-sweet flavor. It is often used ground to flavor poached fruit, as well as in baking pies, cakes, and cookies. Whole sticks are used to infuse flavor into sugar syrups, custards, apple cider and other spiced fruit drinks and desserts.

Cloves are highly aromatic and have a slightly sweet flavor. Whole, they are commonly use to stud onions, oranges, and baked hams, both for flavor and decoration. They are also used whole, or ground, in some pickle recipes. Ground clove is also found in some baked dishes and desserts, it adds complexity, offsetting the sweetness in fruits.

Coriander is highly aromatic, and has a mild citrus-like accent. Whole seeds, or ground, it's found in many Indian dishes. It's great with poultry and other meats. It's also wonderful with cooked carrots and other sweet vegetables.

Cumin has a distinctive, slightly bitter flavor reminiscent of caraway seeds. It is found quite often in Mexican, African, and Indian foods and goes well with chicken or vegetables. I've never found it whole in the supermarket and have been told that it's difficult to crush for use.

Hot, pungent, and warming, ginger is one of my favorite spices. It's often found in baking, pickles, and chutneys. It's also a staple ingredient in Indian and Chinese spice cooking, ground or fresh. Candied ginger is quite a treat.

Nutmeg is another favored spice in my home. It's flavor is sweet, warm, aromatic and surprisingly powerful. It is most pungent when grated fresh and added at the end of cooking. Nutmeg is often used in sweet dishes, savory sauces, and with vegetables. It's the spice that gives Bolognese sauce it's distinctive flavor.

Possibly the most expensive spice, saffron comes from the stamen of the crocus flower and must be hand picked. It's slightly pungent, aromatic, and sometimes slightly bitter. Saffron is used to impart a yellow color to foods, as well as flavor. It's found most often in rice and fish dishes, but can also be used to flavor sweet breads and cookies.

Turmeric has a musky, slightly peppery, flavor. I've never found it sold in anything but ground form, but I'm sure the seeds can be had someplace. It's used quite often in Indian curries and bean dishes to give both flavor, and a deep yellow color. Used sparingly, it can also be an alternative to saffron.

Picture by Daniel Battiston

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Review: Nintendo DS Personal Trainer – Cooking

Can a video game teach you to cook? Maybe. Although it was built for the Nintendo DS, Personal Trainer – Cooking isn't really a game. It's an electronic recipe book filled with tips and techniques, and it's pretty darn fun to use.

As a foodie, and a lover of cool toys, Personal Trainer – Cooking has a lot going for it:

1. 245 excellent recipes from the Tsuji Cooking Academy, categorized by type and country or origin.
2. A great search feature, allowing you to find recipes by ingredients, equipment requirements, or keywords.
3. A built in kitchen timer that's tied into each recipe.

Outside of the recipes, there's a “Cooking A-Z” reference section that includes information covering:
  • ingredients
  • ingredient substitutions
  • utensils
  • ingredient preparation directions including directions for cutting and chopping
  • and lots more cooking information, including some video examples.

Another cool feature is the shopping list. If you find a recipe you want to make, you can check off the ingredients you don't have, and it will keep a shopping list to remind you to pick up those ingredients the next time you go to the grocery store.

Using the recipes is fun, and informative. Each one takes you, step by step, through the dish - from checking the ingredients, making sure you have the needed kitchen equipment, prepping the ingredients, and so on until it's done. The program will even adjust the ingredient quantities for you, depending on how many servings you want to make.

Personal Trainer – Cooking also takes advantage of the microphone built into the Nintendo DS. When you're ready to move on to the next step, you just have to say, “Continue.” If you need to go back and review, just say “Last Step.” If you need to review the step you're on, just say “Review” and it will repeat it for you. It even keeps track of the recipes you've made, when you made them, and how many times you made each recipe to date.

With all of these wonderful things going for it, you'd think I'd like Personal Trainer – Cooking it more than I do. I do like it, don't get me wrong. I think Nintendo is breaking new ground with this title. Like most things, though, there are some things that I think could have worked better.

First is the voice recognition system. It's not bad, as long as the room is very quiet and you're relatively close to the DS. To avoid spilling things on my DS, I decided to place it away from my workspace, meaning I had to walk back and forth a lot for instruction. Also, I have children. That means my house is never quiet until late at night when they're all in bed. I can't count the times it couldn't understand me saying “Continue” (it actually asks you, “What do you mean?”) and yet would happily go back or review when it heard my girls playing in the living room. That meant that I was pushing the buttons - or worse, the touch screen - with hands laced by flour or other ingredients, far more often that I would have liked.

The video tips are actually quite good, but the screen is very small. To save space, there's a lot of video edits that makes some of the videos less helpful than they could be. Some of them gave me the feeling of, “Start out like this and then, a miracle happens!” because of the parts they cut for time and space. There were also some techniques that I thought could use a video, but didn't have one, and some that really didn't need one, but did.

As cool as the shopping list function sounds, it's not practical. Many of the ingredients are exotic enough to not be found in my local grocery, and there are some staple ingredients that just aren't used in the recipes, and so aren't available in the list. This makes it only useful as a reminder for some ingredients when you make out the real grocery list.

The last problem I had was the timer. It's a good electronic timer that will set itself according to the recipe you're on. The problem is you can't use it unless the DS is in full power-up mode. I don't like leaving my DS plugged in, or just open and running by itself, for very long. It just seems like a waste of energy if I'm not playing with it. Shutting the DS puts it into low power mode, but that only stops the timer from running.

Still, the recipes are pretty spectacular. I'm not sure how many of them are good for beginning cooks, but the ones I've tried are excellent. My kids think so, too. They had a great time making their own personal Pizza Margheritas.

I wouldn't recommend going out and buying a Nintendo DS just to have Personal Trainer – Cooking. If you like to cook, though, and you already have a Nintendo DS, you'll probably enjoy it. You'll have a lot of fun and you may even learn a few things about cooking. Just don't get the idea that this will be a replacement for your other cookbooks.

3 zucchinis

Saturday, January 3, 2009

How to Make Leek and Potato Soup (Vichyssoise)

On cold winter evenings it's nice to settle in with a nice warm bowl of homemade soup. Hearty stews and chili dishes are normally thought, but what if you're in the mood for lighter fair? Have no fear, fellow foodies. Leek and Potato soup is the answer.

Leek and potato soup is a great recipe to add to your repertoire. It's silky smooth texture goes well with a crusty bread. Surprisingly filling, it's great for lunch, or supper, either as a main dish for a simple meal, or as an elegant first course for a larger one.

Winter isn't the only time to enjoy leek and potato soup, though. It can be prepared the day before a summer dinner party served chilled as vichyssoise.


3 leeks
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons of butter
1 pound potatoes (yellow or russet)
5 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup light cream
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish

Trim most of the green tops from the leeks, leaving some for color. Cut in half, lengthwise, and then across into 1/2 inch slices. Rinse thoroughly in a colander using plenty of cold water to get rid of any grit.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until the foaming stops. Add the leeks an chopped onion. Stir to coat with butter. Cover and cook over medium heat until soft – about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally to avoid browning. This is one of the few recipes where you don't want the onions to caramelize.

While the leeks and onions are cooking, peel the potatoes and cut into 1/2 inch cubes. When the leeks and onions are soft, add the potatoes to the pan.

Add the chicken stock, salt, pepper, and ground nutmeg. Taste the stock to make sure it's got enough seasoning, but be careful with the salt. The stock may already have enough to begin with.

Bring the stock to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cover the pan. Simmer the mixture for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are very soft.

Remove the pan from the heat. Using an electric hand-held immersion blender, puree the soup for about 3 minutes, until smooth. Keep the blades under the level of the soup to avoid splashing hot soup everywhere. If you don't have an immersion blender, let the soup cool a bit and then puree half at a time in a food processor or freestanding blender. A food mill would probably work, too.

Return the soup to the stove, on medium heat, and stir until it boils. Remove from the heat. Stir in the cream and lemon juice. Check the seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or nutmeg, as needed. You shouldn't taste a lot of the nutmeg. It's just there to add body.

Serve hot, and garnish with chopped parsley. Fresh parsley is always preferred, but dried will do nicely.

For Vichyssoise

After blending, and before adding the cream or lemon juice, let the soup cool completely. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. Chilling will dull the flavor, so make sure you taste it before adding cream, lemon juice, and any additional salt and pepper. Instead of parsley for the garnish, try snipped chives.

Picture by Naama.