Friday, 30 May 2008

Southeast Asian Sojourn 2: Chargrilled lemongrass chicken with vermicelli salad

The Young Man got very excited about this one, and told me to say that you really, really have to try it!!

Like he says, it's a super healthy Vietnamese-style (or possibly Thai? I'm happy to be corrected) noodle salad with a great deal going for it: Munchy cucumber and bean shoots, check! Cool, fresh-tasting herbs, check! Vietnam's signature lime, fish sauce and garlic flavours, check! Flavourful crispy-skinned grilled chicken, check! Slippery rice noodles that glide right down the throat, check! It's all here.

You might want to start this in the morning, as you'll want the chicken to marinate for at least a few hours. If you make the nuoc cham in advance (or at least before you prep the salad), you'll have time to chill it in the fridge before serving. Then it will be super easy to put everything together once the chicken is cooked. Since I haven't seen red chillies in Yokohama shops for a while (and the YM would resist them in any case), I substituted a sprinkle of cayenne pepper, and added some quartered nanachan tomatoes for a bit of color. Even if they're not traditional, I think they are a nice addition.

Nuoc cham is the near ubiquitous Vietnamese dipping sauce/condiment. I made mine with Thai fish sauce, which is what I had on hand. It is, I think, a little less salty than its Vietnamese cousin. See this lovely book excerpt at the recklessly enticing The Global Gourmet site for more on this and other Vietnamese flavourings and condiments.

This recipe comes from my latest favourite cookbook, Blue Ginger by Les Huynh. I've adjusted it to feed 4.

Oh, and when Les advises a small food processor, he means small! I used my trusty (but) tiny Braun Multimix (which is perfect for a shoe-box sized kitchen), and even then ended up finishing the marinade off with a mortar and pestle. Since I wasn't using chillies, I didn't need the food processor at all for the nuoc cham.

Chargrilled lemongrass chicken with rice vermicelli salad

(Note: Australian tablespoons (20 ml) are used in this recipe. Add an extra 1 tsp for each tbsp if using non-Australian measuring spoons)

For 4

2 boned chicken thighs
1 tbsp vegetable oil

3 lemongrass stems (white part only), chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
white pepper, to taste
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp fish sauce
4 tbsp vegetable oil

200 g dried rice vermicelli
1 double handful bean sprouts
2 small handfuls mint leaves, sliced if spearmint, whole if peppermint, or a mix of both
2 handfuls Thai basil leaves [S: or regular basil leaves if Thai variety is unavailable]
2 Japanese cucumbers or 200 g of other kinds, deseeded and julienned
200 ml nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce; see below)

Spring onion oil:
2 1/2 tbsp vegetable oil
4 spring onions, finely sliced

To make the marinade, use a mortar and pestle to pound the lemongrass, pepper and a pinch of salt into a paste. Work in the sugar, fish sauce and oil, pounding until the sugar dissolves. Alternatively, chop the ingredients into a paste using a small food processor. Scoop the marinade into a non-metallic bowl with the chicken. Coat the chicken in the marinade, then marinate in the refrigerator overnight [S: I think doing it in the morning for cooking in the evening is plenty].

To make the salad, put the vermicelli in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave to soften for 5-7 minutes. Drain, refresh under cold water, then drain again. Transfer to a large bowl, add the remaining salad ingredients and mix well.

To make the spring onion oil, heat the oil until hot, then add the spring onions and a pinch of salt and cook for 30 seconds. Take the pan off the heat and set aside.

Preheat a chargrill pan or barbecue hotplate over medium-high heat. Heat 1 tbsp vegetable oil in the pan. Remove the chicken from the marinade and cook it for 7 minute on each side, or until cooked, occasionally pressing firmly on the chicken with a spatula. Remove from the pan, rest in a warm place for 5 minutes, then slice.

To serve, pile the salad into a serving bowl and top with the chicken slices. Drizzle with the spring onion oil. Serve with lime wedges.

Nuoc cham

2 long red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
[S: or to taste. I substituted with a sprinkle of cayenne]
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp lime juice
3 tbsp fish sauce [S: I used less. Add gradually to your taste]
1 tbsp rice vinegar
3 tbsp water

Makes 200 ml

Use a mortar and pestle to pound the chillies and garlic into a paste. Alternatively, chop the ingredients in a small food processor. Add the sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar and 3 tbsp water. Stir until the sugar dissolves.


Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Couscous with herbs & chickpeas

I've been sending the Young Man out before dinner just about every night this week to get more fresh herbs for our ongoing foray into Southeast Asian flavours. How lucky are we to have a supermarket that almost always has a stock of the usual herby favourites not more than 30 seconds outside our door (okay, I admit that I did choose our flat for its proximity to the "super", but that was way back in the day when parsley was about the only "foreign" herb you could expect to find fresh there).

Although this lively salad doesn't hail from Southeast Asia, the herb theme continues, so I'm sneaking it in anyway (call it blogger's prerogative (g)). The couscous, preserved lemon and chickpeas give it a Middle Eastern feel, but this salad is born and bred in Australia. It is from Marie Claire Kitchen, and is a total doddle.

I used brown chickpeas this time, as I seem to be out of the normal kind. They are slightly smaller than regular chickpeas, and only took 1 minute 40 seconds in the pressure cooker (after soaking since the morning)!

I also upped the ante with the lemon juice. I never can get enough of the stuff. That is on top of the preserved lemon (I used a quarter of a lemon, both peel and pulp).

We had this with pan-fried boneless chicken thighs that I had marinated for a bit in the juice of a lemon, 1 tsp of cumin, 2 crushed garlic cloves, a glug of olive oil and some S&P; a trick I picked up from Nigel's The 30 Minute Cook, a cookbook I could can't recommend highly enough (mine is falling to bits from use and it's only a couple of years old).

Couscous with herbs & chickpeas

(Note that Australian tablespoons are used in this recipe. Add an extra 1 tsp for ever tbsp if using non-Australian measures)

175 g couscous
1 tsp butter
400 g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed [S: or the equivalent of cooked chickpeas]
2 large, ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 red onion, finely diced
1 handful mint leaves
1 handful coriander leaves
1 handful Italian parsley
2 tbsp lemon juice, or to taste
3 tbsp olive oil [S: you can get away with quite a bit less]
2 tbsp diced preserved lemon

Put the couscous in a large bowl with the butter and cover with 250 ml boiling water. Leave the couscous for 20-30 minutes, from time to time separating the grains with a fork. Before adding the remaining salad ingredients, rub the cooked grains between you fingers to break up any lumps.

Toss the couscous and all the salad ingredients together and season with salt and ground black pepper.


Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Southeast Asian sojourn 1: Thai minced chicken salad with cashew nuts

Since we went out with friends to a Thai restaurant in Ueno (Tokyo), I've had Thai food on the mind a bit. And Vietnamese, too. So I thought I'd do some Southeast Asian-inspired recipes this week for a bit of a change.

This dish, adapted from a great recipe in Blue Ginger, which I mentioned a while back, is exactly what I had in mind when I went in search of a larb recipe back in February! That effort really tasted fabulous, but was not quite as colourful as I might have liked. But this rendition, with its contrasting reds and greens, lovely clean tastes AND cashew nuts, is as pleasing to the eye as it is to the tongue!

This time, I used what Blue Ginger author Les Huynh calls "red Asian shallots". These are a whole different thing from the shallots I used last time, and really pack quite a wallop for such a small onion. Which is why I cooked them along with the chicken. They're left raw in the original recipe, but I'll leave the final decision about what to do with them up to you. (Red onion would substitute nicely if you can't get a hold of the little red shallots.)

The original recipe serves this salad with a wedge of raw cabbage. The Young Man didn't fancy that, so we did without, but I reckon next time I will try this with some shredded cabbage thrown into the herb and nut mixture.

Although this was my first selection from Blue Ginger, I think a hearty recommendation for the book is in order. Sometimes cookbooks with scrummy pictures don't come up with the goods with the recipes, but happily this isn't one of them. Les' recipes are super easy to follow, and callout shots of the more unusual ingredients really help you know what you're after. Les even includes recipes for Southeast Asian kitchen staples like chilli jam! The publishers have also done a great job with the index in this work, so it is super easy to pinpoint the recipe you're after. Cookbook junkies rejoice!

Anyway, I was so impressed with this recipe, I'm doing another one from the book tonight. In fact, lemongrass chicken is marinating away in the fridge as we speak. Roll on dinner time!

Thai minced chicken salad with cashew nuts

For 2

250 ml chicken stock or water
300 g minced chicken
3 small red shallots

3 tbsp lime juice
1 1/2 tbsp fish sauce, or to taste
1/2 tbsp brown sugar
pinch of chilli powder

Herb and nut mixture:
1/4 small cabbage, finely shredded
1 handful mint leaves
1 handful coriander leaves
1 lemongrass stem (white part only), finely sliced
1 double handful of cherry tomatoes ( in Japan, I like Nanachan tomatoes), some halved, some quartered
1 handful roasted cashew nuts

1 To make dressing, combine lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and chilli powder in a small bowl and stir until the sugar has dissolved.

2 To make the herb and nut mixture, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and gently toss together.

3 Pour the chicken stock into a pot and bring to the boil. Add the chicken, shallots and a pinch of salt (if using unsalted stock). Cook, stirring frequently for 3-4 minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked, then drain and put in a large bowl. Add the dressing and all the herb and nut mixture, then toss together thoroughly.


Wednesday, 21 May 2008

A few favourite salads: Smashed cucumber salad with sesame dressing

Other than the Japanese herb shiso, or perilla, there is nothing especially unusual in this salad, but I really get a kick out of the way it's prepared: by bashing away at your cucumber with the handle end of the knife! In other words, stress relief and something yummy at the end of it. I should charge double!

Perilla is a Japanese herb that has a strong, clean taste that you either love or hate. I love it, but the Young Man won't have a bar of it, so it gets left off his portion. If you can't find perilla, you could substitute basil, in which case, perhaps a sweet wine could substitute for the mirin.

In Japan's hot and sticky summer months, this super simple salad, with its cooling cucumbers and shiso, really hits the spot.

This recipe is also translated and adapted from one found in this Japanese book.

Smashed cucumber salad with sesame dressing

3 Japanese cucumbers, or 300 g of other kinds
1 tomato
5 shiso (perilla) leaves
1 tbsp sesame paste (tahini is fine)
1 tbsp vinegar
1/2 tbsp mirin

1 Smash the cucumbers with the handle of a knife or a rolling pin into rough, uneven pieces. Cut tomato into bite-sized chunks. Roll the perilla (or basil) leaves together and slice into long, thin strips. Slice down the middle of the roll of strips to shorten them.

2 Make dressing by shaking sesame paste, vinegar and mirin in a clean jar. Pour over the vegetables, toss, and top with shiso strips.


A few favourite salads: Cucumber, hijiki and daikon salad

The cold spell we had the last couple of weeks is finally over, and it's time to look out the salad bowls and get into some veggie crunching.

This munchy, crunchy salad is one of our favourites and, with its four veggies and one sea veggie, fairly boosts the vegetable intake. The addition of tuna makes it substantial enough to accompany just a piece of grilled chicken or fish (when you can't be bothered cooking much else).

Daikon, the long, white Japanese radish, is eaten raw in this salad. Much milder than red radishes, this root vegetable is used in Japanese cooking all through the year.

According to the dictionary, hijiki (the blackish threads in the photo) is a kind of brown algae, known by the scientific name Hizikia fusiforme. That doesn't sound too appetizing, I know. But this sea vegetable is said to be a rich source of iodine, calcium, iron, silicon, copper, zinc and selenium, and that's not too shabby. When cooked in lightly sweetened soy and dashi stock as it is here, it becomes a savory little bite that will have everyone round the table guessing what it is! Sold, dried, in packets in every supermarket here in Japan, but you are probably going to have to go to a specialist stockist to get it elsewhere.

This recipe is translated and adapted from one in this Japanese book.

Cucumber, hijiki and daikon salad

For 4

10 g hijiki
1/2 cup dashi stock (can be made with dashinomoto stock granules or a dashi pack)
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
2 Japanese cucumbers or 200 g of other types
1/3 carrot
5 cm length of daikon
1 small tin of tuna flakes, drained
1/3 cup frozen corn kernels
4 tbsp mayonnaise, or to taste
2 tsp soy sauce (optional)

1 Soak the hijiki in warm water for a few minutes and drain. In a small pot, cook hijiki, dashi, sugar and soy sauce over low heat until all the liquid is evaporated, stirring occasionally.

2 Slice cucumbers on thinly on the diagonal and wring out some of the juice by hand. Julienne the carrot and daikon.

3 Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl with the mayonnaise, salt and pepper, and the extra soy sauce, if using.


Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The YM's favourites 5: Potato and meat sauce gratin

I can't tell you the number of times I've made this yummy "gratin." I use the quotes as gratin is probably not the right word for this, as it is actually closer to a cheese-topped layered shepherd's pie. Anyway, language policing aside, this is a cold-weather standard in our house, and the Young Man is always pleased whenever it makes an appearance on the table.

The original recipe is from this Japanese book on 100 yen side dishes (although you can probably take the 100 yen with a grain of salt; I bought the book a good number of years ago now (g)). This little treasure holds a great many of the YM's favourites, a few of which I will showcase in the next few posts.

Rather unorthodoxly, the potatoes in this recipe are cooked by microwaving them in cling wrap (check to see that yours is microwave-safe; not all are). Do this step in advance, if you can. The jackets come off really easily, but you need to have asbestos fingers! I'm usually in a rush, so I keep a cup or bowl of cold water handy to plunge my fingers in if they get too hot. If that all sounds like too much of a pain (!), just peel and boil them as usual.

Although you're essentially making smashed potatoes, you don't add any butter or milk (good job in these days of empty Japanese butter shelves). Don't worry, though, the meat sauce is moist enough to ensure lovely luscious and moreish potatoes without half the dairy case... Which allows you to up the cheese quotient. How good is that?!

I like to make my own tomato sauce, but you could just as easily use a bought one. Probably 600 ml should do it. If you go that way, you might want to add an extra half onion, chopped, when you cook the mince.

Potato & meat sauce gratin

For 4

Tomato sauce:
1 onion, chopped finely
1 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic (or to taste), pressed
1 400 g tin of tomatoes in their juice
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 tbsp dried Italian herb mix (I use the one here)

3 medium potatoes, scrubbed
1 1/2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
300 g mince
Grated cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, or another favourite)

1 Wrap potatoes in cling wrap and microwave on high until soft. Peel, smash roughly and add Parmesan and salt and pepper to taste.

2 Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce. Heat oil in medium pot and fry onions until color changes over medium heat. Add garlic and continue to fry until fragrant. Add tomatoes and their juice, salt and herbs. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

3 Heat a large frying pan until hot and cook the mince, stirring frequently, until the fat runs. Blot with kitchen paper, then add the tomato sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

4 In a large ovenproof dish, layer half the potatoes, then half the meat sauce and repeat. Top with cheese and bake at 200 C until the cheese melts.


The YM's favourites 4: Shoga-yaki and Italian-style egg & tomatoes

This duo is a classic combo in our house whenever we have a Japanese food week. It is normally a trio (with a yummy simmered eggplant and tofu dish), but time is short these days as my commute has blown out to 70 minutes (on 3 "lovely" crowded trains) due to the company's relocation to down-town Tokyo. Other full-time working mothers out there will know that every minute counts in the mad after-work dash to get food on the table, dishes done and everyone bathed and ready for bed. Sadly, my new regime now puts some of our favourite dishes out of reach during the week.

However, both these dishes do not take long once you start cooking, so it is best to have everything ready before you start. Also, if you are having rice, make sure you start it first (g).

Shoga-yaki is sliced pork quick-fried in a ginger, miso and mirin flavoured sauce. It is very flavourful, but you do need to be careful that you don't leave it undercooked or let it get too dry by overcooking it. It is a matter of seconds between the two, so give this your undivided attention--and have your serving plate at the ready--to avoid disappointment. This is my interpretation of the dish, based on a cooking demonstration I once saw at my supermarket here in Japan .

Sliced meat of various types and thicknesses is readily available in all supermarkets in Japan, but if you have to slice it yourself, a semi-frozen block of meat is your best bet. You don't need paper-thin pork for shoga-yaki, just aim for as close to 1--1.5 mm as you can.

You could probably use any kind of miso (Japanese fermented bean paste), but if you have it, white miso (which is actually more mustard-brown than white) works best.

Mirin is a syrupy-sweet Japanese sake used in cooking. Many places on the Net have it that can substitute with sweet sherry, but I think this substitute will give you a better result. If neither of these is suitable/available, sugar syrup will work at a pinch.

The Italian-style egg and tomato dish is so named in the original Japanese recipe. I guess the addition of Parmesan cheese makes it so (?!?). I like to boost the garlic quotient and, although it's not in the OR, add some nice Italian herbs (I use the mix here). I had some leftover fresh basil this time, and it supplemented the dried herbs very nicely. Sometimes I also add a finely chopped spring onion or two as well.

Shoga-yaki: Japanese pork slices in ginger-miso sauce

2-3 tsp miso paste, white for preference
2 tbsp mirin
1/4 medium onion, finely sliced
3 cm fresh ginger, finely julienned
400 g sliced pork, trimmed into bite-sized strips

1 Blend the miso and mirin in a small bowl and set aside.

2 Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan until hot. Add onion and ginger, and fry over medium heat until the colour changes. Add pork quickly, one slice at a time, to ensure even cooking. Pour over miso-mirin mixture and stir-fry quickly until no longer pink. Immediately remove from pan into a serving dish.

"Italian-style" egg and tomatoes

4 eggs
1 tbsp Italian herb mix (I use the one here)
2 tbsp Parmesan cheese
1/3 tsp salt
1 tbsp oil, divided
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 Lightly beat the eggs and add herb mix, Parmesan cheese, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

2 Heat half the oil in a medium frying pan until hot and add the egg mixture. Cook on high, and when eggs begin to set, stir quickly with cooking chopsticks or a wooden spoon. Remove to a plate while still not fully set.

3 Heat remaining oil and add garlic. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant, then add the tomatoes. When the tomatoes are cooked to your liking, add the cooked eggs back into the pan and stir-fry for around 30 seconds, or until well mixed and heated through. Remove to serving dish and eat immediately.


The YM's favourites 3: Tan tan men: Noodles in a vibrant Szechuan pepper sauce

I've mentioned before that I am not a huge fan of ramen, or Japanese noodles in soup. I'm just not that into carbs, and you get very little by way of vegetables.

However, I am partial to tan tan men, the Japanese way with an originally Chinese noodle dish called dan dan mien. It is noodles in a ginger, garlic and spring onion soup whose top note is the eucalyptus-y Szechuan pepper, all topped with (normally spicy mince) and some Chinese greens.

When searching for a recipe online, I found out that the Chinese version is not soupy at all. In fact, I could not find a recipe for the version we know and love in this country, but this one (adapted from this recipe) is very tasty and the Young Man made a special requested, only with MORE SOUP this time!

You'll be doing a bit of fine chopping of garlic and ginger with this one. This is most easily achieved by cutting the garlic (or ginger) into fine slices, then lining them up like a deck of cards spread horizontally on a magician's table (i.e. with the "cards" slightly overlapping each other), and slicing along the row to create fine sticks, then turning the sticks (or the chopping board, even) around and slicing them into fine dice. If the dice are too big, just have at them with the knife again.

In the original recipe, the mince is deep fried to give it a dry finish. You can achieve the same result by frying the meat in a hot, dry pan until the fat has evaporated (this takes around 10 minutes, so be patient (g)). I picked up this technique from the dry Japanese mince dish soboro.

This dish is supposed to be spicy, but I suggest you be careful when you add the chilli oil and Szechuan pepper the first time. You can always add more if you feel it needs it.

Tan Tan Men

For 2

200 g pork mince
1 tbsp soy sauce, dark for preference
1 tsp salt (optional)
300 g egg noodles (2 bundles), fresh or dried
1 1/2 tbsp oil
3 tbsp garlic, finely chopped (around 6-8 cloves)
2 tbsp fresh ginger, finely chopped (around 4 cm ginger root)
5 tbsp spring onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp sesame paste (tahini is fine)
2 tbsp soy sauce, dark for preference
2 tbsp red chilli oil, or to taste (I use quite a bit less)
2 cups chicken stock (you may need to add more salt if using homemade stock)
1-2 tsp ground Szechuan pepper, or to taste (this has a very distinctive flavour so use a careful hand)
4-5 stems (a very small bunch) of komatsuna or spinach, cooked briefly in boiling water and cut into 4 cm lengths
1 double handful of bean sprouts, washed

1 Combine the pork, soy sauce and salt, if using, in a small bowl and mix well.

2 Heat wok or frying pan until hot and add the pork, breaking up the meat with cooking chopsticks as you go. Once the colour changes, reduce the heat to medium and continue to fry, stirring and breaking up the meat occasionally, until all the moisture has evaporated. When done, remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towel.

3 In the same pan, heat oil until hot and add the garlic, ginger and spring onions and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the sesame paste, soy sauce, chilli oil, salt (if using) and chicken stock and simmer for 4 minutes. Adjust the seasoning to your taste.

4 Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the noodles for 2 minutes if fresh, or 5 minutes if dried. Drain well and divide between 2 large noodle bowls.

5 Ladle on the sauce and top with mince mixture, bean sprouts, and cooked komatsuna or spinach.


Monday, 12 May 2008

Margat sharab al-rumman: Chicken fesenjan, Iraqi style

Chicken fesenjan (and variants fesenjaan, fesenjoon and faisinjan) was, if I remember rightly, the very first authentic Persian dish I ever made. It is one of those dishes whose tart and heady flavour is so beguiling that you are amazed when you realize you actually made it yourself.

The stew's key ingredients, walnut and pomegranate, are a combination that appears in various guises throughout the Middle East, for instance in this Turkish dip. There it was bold and sassy, but in this Iraqi rendition of fesenjan, or fasanjoun as it appears to be called in Iraq, it is altogether more subtle. In fact, this is really more comfort food, with very mild spicing and a lovely thick sauce enriched with ground walnuts and pomegranate paste. It is rather different from the fesenjan of my memory (but it has been a few years), but a lovely alternative anyway.

Since I had always associated fesenjan with Iran, it was a surprise to find a recipe in Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook & a History of the Iraqi Cuisine (more on the book in a minute). But according to the author, Nawal Nasrallah, fasanjoun is one of the few non-Iraqi stews that have found a permanent place in the the Iraqi culinary canon.

Her version has different spicing and less onions, walnuts and pomegranate paste than my original attempt, and the other recipes I have (by Najmieh Batmanglij & Claudia Roden) for this dish. It is lovely just the same.

As for the book, my first impression was wow!! Coming in at 644 pages, this is a weighty tome in more than one sense. The recipes look, to the uninitiated (i.e. me), to be almost encyclopedic; but the book is so much more than that. It has the low-down on the cuisine right back into antiquity, and all sorts of personal recollections, literary and historical quotes, and anecdotes aplenty. In short, you couldn't want for a better book on all things to do with the Iraqi kitchen.

Garden seems to have been self-published, and I think it is a very great shame that the author, for whom it must have been the labour of very many years, did not or could not find a major publisher befitting her book's place as the classic work that it is. I was also moved to tears by her apology at the beginning of the book.

Considering the hardships that Iraq has been going through for more than a decade, some might think that this is not the right time to write about food. But as a wife, a mother, a woman, and a human being, I find in food and in the memories of food my refuge, my comfort and consolation when things are not looking good...

I absolutely agree and no apology is needed. It is precisely in times of strife (if that is the word; I don't want to get political here...) that food becomes important. I'm sure that Ms. Nasrallah's work will serve Iraqis who end up settling outside their homeland a beloved scent and taste of home, while also giving the rest of us who might seek to know the culture better, an unbiased, non-political entry point. I highly recommend it and rank it alongside Claudia's Book of Jewish Food and Najmieh's New Food of Life.

Margat sharab al-rumman: Pomegranate and walnut stew with chicken (Iraqi style fesenjan)

For 4

3 skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tbsp oil
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp flour
1 cup toasted walnuts, pulverized in a food processor until oily

2 cups water
1/4 cup pomegranate syrup
(or substitute with juice of 1 lime or lemon, 2 tbsp brown sugar and 1/2 cup tomato juice)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp each black pepper, cumin and cinnamon
2 cups diced vegetables [S: I used zucchini; but the author suggests potatoes or sliced, fried eggplants]
1/4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds [S: If available], and chopped parsley or dried mint to garnish

1 In a medium pot, heat half the oil and brown the chicken on all sides.

2 Add onion and turmeric, and fold until onion is transparent, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle flour and walnut on the onion, and fold for a few more minutes.

3 Add remaining ingredients except for garnish, and stir carefully. Bring to a quick boil, then reduce heat and let simmer gently for about 40 minutes, or until the meat and vegetables are tender, and the sauce nicely thickened.

4 Garnish with chopped parsley and pomegranate seeds, and serve with white rice.

As I was writing this, I though about looking up the recipe for my first fesenjan on the Net. Unfortunately, it seems its poster has since passed away and we can no longer access the Persian recipes he had on his professional web site. I still have the print out, so here it is. Although I never knew agha-ye Mokhtarian, this recipe made a big impression, and helped stoke the engines of at least one culinary quest that I know of. You can try both recipes and see how things change when a dish crosses borders. It's something I find quite fascinating.

The original recipe gives measurements in "glasses" and "spoons". I have taken these to mean 200 ml cups and 15 ml tablespoons.

Khoresht fesenjaan: Iranian chicken in walnut and pomegranate sauce

For 6

1-1.5 kg chicken pieces
500 g ground walnuts
3-4 onions
4-5 tbsp pomegranate paste
2-3 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup oil [S: I probably used less than that]

Peel onions and slice thinly. Fry in oil until slightly golden. Wash chicken pieces and fry in onions until color changes. Add 3 cups of hot water and bring to the boil Turn heat down and let boil slowly for about 30 minutes, adding more hot water if needed.

Add salt, ground walnuts, pomegranate paste and 2 more cups of hot water and bring to slow boil. If pomegranate paste is sour, add some sugar to the khoresht.

Care should be taken to cook the khorest long enough so that the oil in the walnuts comes out and the mix becomes quite thick. Khoresht fesenjan should be served with white rice.


Friday, 9 May 2008

The YM's favourites 2: Classic Salisbury steak with mushrooms

There are ingredients that you can't get here in Japan and, surprisingly, horseradish cream is one of them. So I always slip a jar of the stuff in the suitcase on the way back from visits to Oz. Until now, the customs officers at Narita have mainly been concerned that I might be smuggling porn into the country (yup, even with the Young Man in tow!), and bringing food in has not been a problem. It seems that after a slew of food scandals, the lovely people at customs are now clamping down a bit on food, so I wonder how long I'll get away with the horseradish (and the cheese and the dried fruit and the nuts and the...)

So, horseradish is a bit of a luxury, which only gets a showing on two occasions: with a nice gingered steak, and in this all-time favourite of the YM's, Salisbury steak.

Never having visited the US, you'll forgive me for knowing nothing about the said "steak", which is not a steak in my dialect of English at all, but an authentic super-sized hamburger. Wikipedia informs us that in its country of origin, the Salisbury steak moniker is often reserved for such mega-patties that are served with "gravy" (ie an integral sauce made from the pan juices). Otherwise, their known as Hamburg steaks. Fair enough. This dish also seems to be the inspiration for the Japanese Hamburg steak (or hamubaagu for short in Japanese), which is a staple in these parts. (I'd often wondered why this was called a "steak", but put it down a weird translation thing from the English to the Japanese).

So, what's so good about this version? Well, a Japanese hamubaagu is usually topped with tinned demi-glace sauce, which is okay, I suppose, but where I grew up, steak (as in the big slab of meat) is always served with onions and mushrooms, and for variety, sometimes even an onion and mushroom sauce (!) (I'm a bit loathe to call it a "gravy" as it seems to be in the US). This is a fine interpretation of that.

And its secret ingredient is none other than horseradish cream.

This recipe is from Saving Dinner the Low-Carb Way by Leanne Ely (who I've mentioned before). I have altered it slightly. (1) Prepare your cornflour/cornstarch in advance. Before you start, blend 2 tsp of cornflour with just a little more of water. Let this sit while you cook. The cornflour will sink, and when you are ready for it just scoop the cornflour out -- it will "bunch together" then liquefy again and run from your fingers into the pan -- saving you from making the sauce too watery. Chinese restaurants use this method, and no one would call them slouches in the sauce-thickening department, would they? (2) Really work the meat, lifting it and slamming it against the bowl until it is paste like. This breaks down and distributes the fat, giving a nicer finish.

I served this with caramelised onions and sauteed spinach with ginger, garlic and soy sauce. You may want more veggies, but these are big patties so we didn't need anything else.

Classic Salisbury Steak

2 tsp cold water
2 tsp cornstarch [S: aka cornflour]
450 g extra lean beef mince [S: regular mince is fine too; you need the fat to fry the onions]
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp whole-wheat bread crumbs
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tbsp horseradish cream
salt & pepper to taste
1 tbsp vegetable oil, divided
1 can beef broth [S: I've no idea how much is in a "can" of broth, so I just eyeball it; maybe 200 ml)
3 cups mushrooms, sliced

In a small bowl, mix the cornflour and water and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the next 6 ingredients, mixing thoroughly and working into a paste, then shape into 4 oval patties. Make a slight indentation in the middle of each oval with your fingers to help the patties cook evenly.

In a frying pan over medium heat, heat oil [S: may not be necessary if not using lean beef] until hot and place patties in the pan. Cook about 7 to 8 minutes or until no longer pink and juices run clear, turning just once. Remove patties from skillet and keep warm.

In the same skillet, saute mushrooms till soft. Remove mushrooms and add broth, using a wire whisk to scrape up the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Allow broth to simmer until slightly reduced. Scoop up the cornstarch and add to broth mixture and cook over medium heat (it needs to simmer) for 3 to 5 minutes or until thickened. Add back the mushrooms [S: and the juices that will have leaked from the steaks] and stir well, serving the mushroom gravy over patties.


Vietnamese beef and noodle salad

It was unseasonably hot the other day (27 C in early May!), but luckily I had already planned on making this yummy sounding salad recipe that I nicked from Melbourne's The Age newspaper a while back (when the weather was warmer in the southern hemisphere than it is now). It doesn't seem to be available on the Age web site any more, but you can get it, with a spiffy photo, at Cuisine.

I used the remains of a packet of Thai rice noodles instead of the mung-bean thread (glass or cellophane) noodles, soaked in hot water out of the tap. Having done some further sleuthing, I reckon I'd soak them in fresh-boiled water next time (or use the correct noodles as instructed (g)). They were a little on the crunchy side (g).

I also cooked my block of good Aussie beef (being preferable to the US stuff with Japanese consumers for the last few years due to ongoing BSE problems in the US) in the oven, as you'd never get it under our tiny grill, which is intended for fish, after all. If you do it this way, you'd want to preheat your oven to 200 C and sear the beef on all sides in an ovenproof frying pan, then bung it in the oven for around 10 minutes. Leave it to rest before carving. I thought the beef (which wasn't a fillet) was a little tough, so I might add a bit of vinegar to the hoi sin sauce marinade next time and see what happens.

Looking at the photos, I realize I inadvertently topped my version with dried Thai shrimp instead of the fried shallots. In Yokohama, both can be found at this shop.

I also didn't add the coriander, as the Young Man basically won't eat anything with it in.

Now, this was my first foray into Southeast Asian salads, and I can't believe how easy it was. The tastes are big and bold, and there's lots of different things going on texture-wise, too. This is a definite keeper, and was a nice intro into an area covered in more depth by this book, which was my last cookbook purchase from the bookshop downstairs at work before the office moved to down-town Tokyo (where downstairs is home only to swanky (read "overpriced") eateries and NO bookshops with extensive cookbook offerings (how will I survive?!). You'll be hearing more on Blue Ginger shortly, I imagine (g).

Vietnamese beef and noodle salad

Serves 4

For the salad
350g porterhouse or fillet of beef
4 tbsp hoi sin sauce
200g mung-bean thread (also called glass) noodles
1 cup each of mint, Thai basil and coriander leaves
1 Lebanese cucumber, thinly sliced
2 long red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
4 tbsp crushed roasted peanuts
2 tbsp fried shallots

For the dressing
3-4 tbsp grated palm sugar [S: dense brown sugar is a good substitute]
juice of 2 limes
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 stick of lemon grass, white part, finely sliced

Marinate the beef in the hoi sin for 2 hours. Soak the noodles in hot water until soft. Drain, rinse in cold water and cut into manageable lengths (about 10cm) [S: kitchen scissors make short work of this]. Combine the herbs, cucumber, chilli and noodles in a bowl. Combine the dressing ingredients and adjust to taste. It should taste sweet, salty and tangy all at once.

Grill the beef to medium rare and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Slice thinly and add to the salad. Toss everything together and serve on plates sprinkled with the roasted peanuts and fried shallots.


The YM's favourites 1: Gingered steak & "French" potato salad

The Young Man of the house is shortly to take his annual trip back to Australia for the summer holidays, so I think I will spoil him a bit by making all his favourite meals before he goes. Who knows, maybe the recipes will spur his dear Grandparents to give some of them a go while he's there. Or maybe the YM might surprise them by giving one of them a go himself!

The marinade in this recipe comes from Brilliant Barbecues, a book I've had for years, but never progressed much beyond this one idea. Which is a shame really, as there are a great many more enticing recipes within its covers. (On checking out the publishing details, it transpires that none other than Donna Hay did the food styling for this work. Is their no pie the lady has not had her finger in??)

We don't eat a lot of steak here, as meat is quite expensive (although less so now that a new fresh food-focused supermarket has taken over the spot vacated by the old "discount" supermarket. Not sure how that one works, but I'm certainly not complaining), but when we do, it invariably gets a soak in this very fine marinade first. Now, I know some people are not fond of fresh ginger, and the YM also ranks in their numbers, but somehow this always hits the spot with him, and I am not "allowed" to make steak any other way! So even if you're not a huge fan of ginger, I urge you to give this a go. It really is special.

With the slightly thinner steaks we get in Japan, a couple of hours is plenty of time to marinate in this super tenderizing mixture. Much more than that and the meat will start to fall apart!

The potatoes are an old signature dish of mine from my pre-Middle East gourmet days. The recipe is from Mary Berry's Complete Cookbook (mentioned earlier), but I think of it as my own now as I can make it blindfolded by now.

It is called French potato salad, but when I've taken it to the annual H&H picnic, which is usually attended by at least one French person, I can't say it has elicited an "It tastes just like home" responses (g). The original recipe slathers the pots in both vinaigrette dressing and mayonnaise. It's certainly good that way, but just as often I'll need it in a hurry before it cools enough for the mayo. Either way, I call it yum!

Ginger marinade

2 spring onions, finely chopped
2 tsp finely grated ginger
1 tsp crushed black peppercorns
60 ml Japanese soy sauce
2 tbsp (2 1/2 tbsp if using non-Australian measuring spoons) brown sugar
2 tbsp (see above) sake or dry sherry

Mix ingredients and marinate meat for around 2 hours.

French potato salad

Vinaigrette dressing:
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2--1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tbsp Dijon or seeded mustard
salt and pepper to taste

450 g potatoes, small new potatoes for preference
1/4 onion or 3 spring onions, chopped very finely
2-3 tbsp mayonnaise, or to taste (optional)

Make the vinaigrette by shaking ingredients together in a clean jar.

Scrub the potatoes and cut into bite-sized chunks. Boil in salted water until tender. Drain well and return to the heat briefly to evaporate the last of the moisture. Shaking the pan a little to fluff the potatoes will help them absorb the dressing. While still hot, add the onions or spring onions and around half the vinaigrette dressing (or to taste) and toss well to coat. When cool, add the mayonnaise, if desired.