Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Tortoise Tower" Chicken Pho

As you might have read in one of my previous posts, Russell turned (29+1) earlier this month & I wanted to make his birthday extra special by cooking him some delicious food.  Even though I am more Chinese - genetically & culturally - than he is, I had never heard of the Chinese tradition of eating chicken on one's birthday before I met the guy.  He told me that in the Taishan (Toi-San, 台山) dialect, the word for "chicken" sounds very similar to the word for "luck" so a person should eat chicken on his/her birthday in order to ensure good luck in the year to come.

I was originally planning on making surf-&-turf, but chicken is good...until...

Me: "So what kind of chicken do you want me to make?  Fried?  Chicken wings?"
Him: "How about chicken pho?"
Me: "You want to go to out for your birthday?"
Him: "No.  I want you to make it...from scratch."


I didn't hit the panic button just quite yet.  His mom had gotten me a cookbook for Christmas that was all about Vietnamese home cooking.  Lo & behold there is a recipe for chicken pho in there.  Phew.  But still, can I tackle making pho?

Watch out for the "trick ingredient"...
     1 chicken, about 3 pounds
     6 whole scallions
     1 2-inch piece of ginger, crushed
     1 tablespoon salt
     0.5 package thick vermicelli noodles
     6 cups homemade chicken stock*
     2 tablespoons fish sauce
     1 scallion, chopped
     0.25 cup cilantro, chopped

And it takes longer than one'd think...
     In a large pot, bring some water (~6 cups) to boil
     Add in the chicken, scallion, ginger, & salt.  Bring back to a boil for 20 minutes
     Remove the chicken & place it in an ice bath for 20 minutes
     Remove the chicken from the ice bath, pat it dry, remove the skin, & shred up the meat
     Cook the vermicelli noodles according to the package instructions
     Boil the chicken stock, seasoning with fish sauce to taste
     In a bowl, place the vermicelli noodles, the chicken meat, & then pour over with the hot broth
     Garnish with chopped scallion & cilantro

Makes 2 servings

What seemed complicated @ first turned out to be more time consuming than anything else.  The end result was not too shabby.  The noodles could have been cooked a little longer & the broth could have used a bit more salt, but that was about it.  The "trick ingredient" I mentioned above is the homemade chicken stock.  I actually went ahead & made one a day ahead & it took about 5.5 hours start to finish.  I think it's nice to have a homemade stock but it is by no means necessary in my opinion.  Actually, store-bought stocks are much more flavorful than the one I made.

So why am I calling my chicken pho "Tortoise Tower" chicken pho?  For those of you who live in or around San Francisco, you might know of a Vietnamese restaurant called Turtle Tower that is quite famous for its chicken pho.  As a matter of fact, it is the only place I get chicken pho.  Since I was trying to riff off Turtle Tower, I thought I should give my dish a cleaver name that involved a similar reptile.  If you want, you can read more about the real Turtle Tower chicken pho here.

* To make the chicken stock, roast 0.5 yellow onion & 1 3-inch piece of ginger at 350F for 1 hour.  Blanch 3 pounds of chicken scraps (i.e. neck, wings) in boiling water for 3 minutes & rinse.  Cut the roasted onion in half & the roasted ginger into coins.  In a large pot, bring to boil 8 quarts of water along with the chicken, onion, ginger, 0.75 tablespoon salt, & 0.75 tablespoon palm sugar.  Reduce heat to a simmer & let it go for 4 hours.  Remove any large solids & strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer.  Refrigerate or freeze in air tight containers.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

7x7 Big Eats 2013 - Irving Cafe & Deli

Location: 2146 Irving Street, San Francisco, California 94122 
Date: Sunday, February 24th
Food: Banh-Mi
Price: $4.00-$4.50
Comments: I got the combination pork sandwich which was pretty disappointing.  I have only had a few Banh-Mi sandwiches in my lifetime but I know they are supposed to have quite of bit of pickled vegetables.  This sandwich had only shredded carrots & 1 piece of cucumber that was slightly pickled (if @ all).  There were 3-4 different types of pork products but they all tasted very similar in their seasoning except for the paté which was so flavorful, it overwhelmed everything else.  This is also where the acidity from the pickled vegetables would have helped a lot.  The best thing was the bread which remained crispy even after sitting in the wrapper for 30 minutes.  The price was reasonable & the service was quick but I don't think I will stop in for another sandwich any time soon.

Quick & Easy - Cinnamon'y Horchata

I love Mexican food.  If there is one kind of food that you will find me craving constantly, it's Mexican.  While I live close to many delicious & authentic Mexican restaurants, I don't really take advantage of them because I really don't enjoy getting flashed by some crazy guy as I come up the escalator from BART or hearing about how people got shot outside of a restaurant we ate @ a few days before.

While I can manage to put together some rendition of tacos & burritos in my own kitchen, something was missing...something that always made my meals felt complete when I eat out.  I didn't realize what that was until I thought back some of my favorite meals @ Mexican restaurants & remembered that I often got a horchata with my food!  The first time I had horchata was 2 or 3 years ago when I went on a road trip to San Diego with some girl friends from college.  I had no idea what it was but I liked that it was cinnamon'y & it was like milk that didn't come with the dreadful digestive repercussions.  Ever since that time, I have almost always paired my burritos with a horchata.

A few nights ago, it was tacos night @ my house & we usually just end up drinking soda - Mexican Coke for him, Diet Coke for me.  I thought I might shake things up a bit this time & went in search of a horchata recipe.  I had no idea how horchata is made so I just crossed my fingers that I would find something that's quick & easy.  In the end, I came across this recipe on Pinterest (where else?).

Thank goodness, it was quite simple...
     0.5 cup raw almonds
     0.3 cup white rice
     1.25 cups warm water
     1 cinnamon stick
     0.3 cups sugar
     1.5 cups water
     0.25 teaspoon vanilla extract
     1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

But it does take a while...
     Put almonds, rice, warm water, & cinnamon stick in a sealable container.  Refrigerate for 8-12 hours
     Remove the cinnamon stick & pour the almond/rice mixture into a blender; blend until smooth
     Add in sugar, water, vanilla extract, ground cinnamon, & blend for 2-3 minutes more
     Strain the mixture through a fine sieve or cheese cloth into glasses


Makes 2 cups

The end product tasted like a horchata but the texture was too watery.  I did some more research after dinner & found a few ways that might improve this recipe.  One - leave the almond/rice mixture on the counter instead of in the fridge over night.  Two - use cashews instead of almonds; the blogger of the original recipe uses cashews because they are creamier.  Three - use milk instead of water when blending.  The dash of ground cinnamon @ the end was my idea because I didn't think the cinnamon stick did much of anything.  Does anyone know of ways to get the most bang out of a cinnamon stick?  I have a really big bag of raw almonds in my cupboard that needs to be used so I am very likely to be making horchata again soon.  Hopefully, after incorporating these modifications, the next batch will be closer to what I get @ restaurants.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Simple Yet OCD-Satisfying Menu Planner

This is a really typical conversation in our household:

     R: What are we having for dinner tomorrow?
     K: I don't know.  What do you want?
     R: I don't know.  Whatever.
     K: Well I can defrost something.
     R: Nah...
     K: We really shouldn't go out.  How about chicken?
     R: I guess...

This particular conversation ended with the next night's dinner being chicken; but not all conversations end with staying in.  Because of our lack of planning & preparation, we end up eating out quite a bit; filling our bodies with junk & draining our wallets with unnecessary spending. As part of my new year resolution to take better care of myself, I needed to figure out something that would help me better plan my meals.

I remember seeing a few pins on Pinterest for menu planners so I thought I'd try my hand @ making one.  While these fancy shmancy menu boards featured on Pinterest are great, they are way too complicated to make & too intense for my purposes.  I really don't need handmade gemstone magnets to know what I should eat for the next 2 weeks.  I then did some Googling and saw these really cool menu planners that use a picture frame & you write on the glass with a white board marker.  That's a great & simple idea but I am picky & wanted to have something that will let me see my meals @ least 2 weeks @ a time.  Besides, a decent 10x14 frame can cost about $15.  I wasn't sure what I was going to do until I was walking around Target & saw a white board calendar on sale for $4.  This was perfect!  Nothing fussy, just a straight forward calendar that I can write on & erase as often as I pleased.  I picked up a box of tiny magnets & a pack of whiteboard markers & that was it.

The black is the meals that we're going to eat.  The blue is the starch that goes with the meal.  The green is the vegetable side dish; unfortunately we don't have one for everyday.  The red is for eating out.  The ? is for when I have run out of ideas so we are going to just wing-it the day of.  I also like to look up recipes that I want to try ahead of time, write them down, & keep them on the board with a little magnet.

This is working out really well so far.  We are not eating out as much, we only buy the stuff that we need from the produce market, & I have been trying out new recipes.  As a nice little bonus, my knife skills are getting better.  The entire menu planner "kit" - calendar, magnets, & markers - cost only about $12.  I am pretty sure it has saved me that much already & I haven't even had it for a month.

So why is this menu planner so OCD-satisfying?  Other than allowing me to excessively plan out my life?  If you know me, you know I have this thing about my handwriting having to be perfect so the white board gives me the freedom to easily erase a day's meal & write it over again if I didn't like the way it looked.  I am slightly ashamed to say this, but I have erased the whole board & re-written it before...several times.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

7x7 Big Eats 2013 - Zuni Cafe

Location: 1658 Market Street, San Francisco, California 94102 (main entrance on Rose Street)
Date: Saturday, February 9th
Food: Roasted chicken & bread salad
Price: $48
Comments: We have talked about getting this dish since August of 2010 & we finally did it!  It was worth the wait & anticipation too.  The chicken was moist & flavorful & all it was missing was that perfect crispy skin.  The texture of the chicken meat was firm; a complete 180 from the supermarket rotisserie chicken that I know too well.  While the chicken was great, the true star was the bread salad.  The bread was grilled first which gave it a toasty undertone & a more substantial body to stand up to the chicken juice that it was soaking up.  The pine nuts & the currants added a sweetness which enhanced the bread.  Last but not least, the bright vinaigrette & bitter greens lightened up the dish & gave it balance.  The 2 of us ate most of the chicken & polished off that salad.  I think if we didn't have appetizers and weren't planning on getting dessert, we would have finished off the chicken too.  The dish takes about 40 minutes to be ready so think about ordering that first & then browse/order your appetizers.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Special Occasion Pai Bao (排包) French Toast

The Boyfriend turned 30...I mean 29...again...this year.  Since I work from home now & have the time, I thought I would make him a nice breakfast to enjoy as he opened his presents.  I didn't come up with the idea until the night before his birthday so naturally, I didn't have many options in terms of ingredients to choose from.  Luckily, my parents had stopped by a few days earlier for my birthday & they brought me some Pai Bao (排包).  After a quick rummage around my brain & the fridge...French toast it is!

What is Pai Bao?  It is a sweet bread with lots of eggs & butter that is really common in bakeries across Hong Kong.  Think of it as Hong Kong-style Brioche.  As far as I know, Pai Bao gets its name from its row-like formation and in Cantonese, the noun form of the word 排 is "to be in a row".

I had the idea & I had - I think - the ingredients; but how are French toasts made exactly?  I did a bit of Googling &  Mr. Alton Brown popped up with a 5-star recipe (from 500+ reviews).  As a long time fan of Good Eats, this is the recipe for me.

I had almost everything in the list...
     0.5 cup half-and-half
     1 egg + 1 yolk
     1 tablespoon agave nectar
     1/8 teaspoon salt
     4 slices of Pai Bao, about 0.5 inch thick
     2 tablespoons butter

Who knew you'd need an oven to make French toast...
     In a medium bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, eggs, agave, & salt
     Soak the bread in the custard for about 30 seconds per side, set aside on a wire rack over a sheet tray
     Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan over medium-low heat
     Place 2 slices of bread into the pan & cook them until golden brown; about 2 minutes per side
     Place the bread on the wire rack & place into a 375F oven for 5 minutes
     Repeat the previous 2 steps with the other 2 slices of bread.
     Serve the toasts hot with maple syrup, fruits, whipped cream, and/or powdered sugar

Make 2 servings

I thought about waiting until all 4 slices of bread were browned in the pan before sending them into the oven but then I thought better: the butter is going to soak into the bread as it sits there for the next 6 minutes and get gross.  Seriously, do it in batches.  I learned the hard way that when melting and cooking in butter, the key it to go low & slow.  I had the heat up to medium-high & the bread turned out so charred I had to throw a whole chunk of it away.  The French toasts in the picture turned out much better because I melted the butter slowly & removed the pan from heat when it bubbled too much.  I didn't have any half-and-half around so I substituted with 0.5 tablespoon butter & half a cup of milk.  The original recipe calls for day-old or stale bread.  I am not sure what the value is in that; maybe it will soak up more of the custard?  I thought the Pai Bao was a bit too soft but it might have to do with the fact that they are almost an inch thick.  The next time I make this - which won't be very soon because I don't know where to go to get really good Pai Bao - I am going to make a pocket, put some peanut butter & grape jelly inside, & make it a PB&J French toast sandwich.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

7x7 Big Eats 2013 - Art's Cafe

Location: 747 Irving Street, San Francisco, CA 94122
Date: Saturday, February 2nd
Food: Hashbrown sandwich
Price: $5.45-$7.00
Comments: Apologies for only having a picture of the leftover; the one I took of the full dish somehow didn't save on my phone.  I had the spinach, onions, mushrooms, & hot sausage version & it was quite nice.  This was more of an omelet since a sandwich would probably look more like 2 patties of hashbrown on top & bottom...@ least that's what I thought of when I read the name.  The "sandwich" was not too greasy & there was plenty of stuffing on the inside.  The service is really quick but that's about all I can say about that.  We were in & out in about 30 minutes.  Art's is really small & only has 1 long counter with about 12 seats so be prepared to wait or have a backup plan.

From the Oven - Cinnamon Sugar Donut Muffins

About a month ago I made mini cinnamon sugar coffee cakes that were tasty but were dry.  I wasn't sure if it was the recipe or the super powerful motor of my Ninja food processor that made them that way, so I found this similar recipe on Baked Perfection to could see if the results would be any different.  Another way I could have done this was use the same recipe but make it without using the Ninja...but where is the fun in that?

Pretty similar ingredients with a few extra things...
     2 cups all-purpose flour (you can substitute with 1 cup of whole wheat flour)
     1 tablespoon baking powder
     0.5 tablespoon baking soda
     2 eggs
     1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
     1 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt
     0.67 cup brown sugar
     4 tablespoons oil (I used grape seed oil)
     1 teaspoon vanilla extract
   For the topping:
     4 tablespoons butter
     0.25 cup granulated sugar
     1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

And let the experiment begin...
     In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, & cinnamon
     In another large bowl, mix together the eggs, yogurt, sugar, oil, & vanilla
     Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients; mix just until everything is moistened
     Divide the batter into a greased muffin pan & bake @ 400F for 12-15 minutes
     Melt the butter over low heat & mix the sugar & cinnamon in a small bowl
     When the muffins are still hot, dip them into the melted butter & then into the cinnamon sugar

Makes 12 muffins

I ended up messing up the experiment because I didn't use the Ninja for the entire process; I only used it to mix together the wet ingredients.  Anyhow, these muffins were much fluffier than the other recipe & they were very buttery.  I am going to stick with this recipe & repeat this experiment again; this time really using the Ninja all the way through.  Stay tuned.