Tag Archives: ethnic

General Tsao’s Chicken

7 Sep

Who is this General Tsao and did he own a cast iron skillet?! A quick Wikipedia search tells me that while the Hunan province man existed, it appears the Qing Dynasty general actually had little or no connection to the sweet & sour deliciousness named after him. It remains a mystery if he owned a cast iron skillet, but with cast iron being a Chinese invention from the 5th Century BC, I’m thinking “yes”.

I confess that I’ve never been a big fan of Chinese take-out. Not because I think the fate of all feral dogs & cats has anything to do with it, even though my mom would argue the mathematical uncertainty of this, but rather because it lacks bacon it tends to be so syrupy sweet. A factor that directly contributes to the Farklepants’ stepkids’ burning love for Chinese take-out.

Fueled by cocky contempt for cheap take-out, I figured that whatever Panda Express can do, I can do better. There’s no shortage of recipes online, so I blended the best of all and added Sriracha my own touch to please my palate. And since I’m preoccupied with the health of my family, I also added a good amount of veggies, because, you know, I’m an evil person “green” is a color my adopted brood’s diet is challenged by.

Feel free to substitute the bell peppers and/or sugar snap peas with any other vegetable(s) you like… or leave them out altogether and garner a deep respect from the entire male juvenile population in the USA. On that note, you can use this sauce on pretty much anything you want to give an Asian flavor, grill with it, marinate with it or simply suck it with a straw.

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GENERAL TSAO’S CHICKEN
(Loosely based on a vast collection of Pinterest recipes)
For the sauce:
– 1/2 cup of chicken stock
– 2 Tbsp of soy sauce
– 2 Tbsp of rice vinegar
– 4 Tbsp of Hoisin sauce (*)
– 4 tsp of Sriracha sauce (this dish is pretty spicy. Add less for moderate or mild heat)
– 4 tsp of sesame oil
– 5 Tbsp of honey or sugar
(*) You can find Hoisin sauce in the Asian section of your supermarket. Kikkoman is the brand I used and the most commonly sold.

For the stirfry:
– 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
– 1/2 cup of corn meal (*)
– 1/2 of all-purpose flour
– 1 large red bell pepper, chopped into strips
– 2 good handfuls of sugar snap peas or snow peas
– 2 bunches of scallions, chopped
– 6 garlic cloves, minced
– 3 tsp of fresh ginger, grated (approx. 3-inch piece)
– peanut oil or lard for frying the chicken cubes
(*) You can also just use flour if you can’t find corn meal. I find that a flour/corn meal mixture gives extra crunch, but it’s not a “must”.

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a jar and give it a good shake. You should have about 1.5 cups worth, but a bit more or less is not a problem.

Slice all veggies and set aside. Grate garlic and ginger, and set aside.

Rinse & dry chicken breast completely. Slice chicken into bite-size pieces, approx. the size of a walnut. Salt & pepper the chicken pieces.
Combine corn meal & flour, and coat chicken pieces liberally. Make sure all pieces are bone-dry, as otherwise they won’t brown properly.

In a cast iron skillet or heavy pot, heat peanut oil (or lard) to 350F and fry the chicken pieces until they are golden brown and crisp. You only need to go about 1/2 inch deep with oil, and for me, that was about 1 cup of lard in my 12-inch cast iron skillet.
I fried my chicken in 3 batches. Each batch only takes a few minutes, so it went pretty quickly. They should be slightly crunchy on the outside. They may not be cooked entirely trough at this stage, but don’t worry, as they’ll cook through later on when we combine everything.

Take fried chicken pieces out of the pan, and set on a paper towel lined plate to absorb some of the excess fat.

Drain all but 1-2 Tbsp of the fat, place hot pan back over medium heat and add all of the bell pepper & sugar snap peas and sauté for a few minutes until ‘just’ beginning to soften. I like the crunchy texture of slightly under-cooked vegetables, but you can sauté them all the way to “done” if this is your preference.

Add grated garlic & ginger, half of the scallions & chicken pieces back into the pan, and pour sauce over the top. Simmer over medium-low heat until sauce reduces, thickens & coats chicken evenly. This only takes about 10-15 min or so.

When ready, add remaining scallions and serve hot over steamed white or brown rice.

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Picadillo Cubano

22 Aug

I’ll come right out and say that I knew very little about ethnic food whilst growing up in my small, rural neck of the woods. My mom would sometimes experiment with ethnic food, such as that time she prepared ‘babotee’. OMG!. Babotee!. I think my brother & I are still mentally scarred from that one. Funny enough, I have no memory whatsoever of having eaten anything exotic after the babotee disaster, so I’m thinking that that African devil even struck a nerve with mom. We didn’t have much money and food was never wasted, and that was both a promise as well as curse since you knew that when something didn’t turn out quite well, we’d still be eating it! Babotee was right up there with canned bananas.

Anyway, my first ‘real’ exposure to exotic cuisine was when I went to the ‘Polé Polé Festival’ in Gent (Belgium) with a few friends and enjoyed my first Mojito and roast pork. One of the things I probably miss most from Belgium, are the sultry Summer music festivals and their colorful posters that were haphazardly tacked on wooden telephone poles & announcement boards across town. The featured bands usually hailed from Northern Africa, Central & Latin America and flamenco heartbeats like Spain & Portugal. The band names alone were enough to lure us out of our rural shell: Radio Tarifa, Youssou n’Dour, Ojos de Brujo, Cesaria Evora… The sound of African drums and the exotic smells that wafted over the concert meadow, took us far away from the sugar beet fields & farms surrounding our houses. And when the heat became too much for the atmosphere and the torrential downpour of a typical Belgian thunderstorm came rolling in, we’d all huddle in the festival tents and it felt like a tropical vacation. It’s precisely there, in that oppressive hot tent, that my love for global music and world cuisine was born. My friend also found love for Ntibanoboka from Burundi there… but we shall say no more.

African, Caribbean & Latin cuisines are the type of culinary exploration that I haven’t really ventured into yet. I can follow a recipe, of course, but it’s not like I can add a little bit of this & a little bit of that and come up trumps. I have little to no understanding of flavor combinations in exotic cooking, yet I love mostly all ethnic food that I’ve eaten at small family-owned hole-in-the-wall type eateries as well as fancy restaurants. Now that our finances are seriously strapped and firmly rooted in the chicken & ground beef realm of things, I miss going to our favorite restaurants. Havana Mania in Inglewood, CA is no exception. I love that Cuban place. Not only do they serve the meanest mojito’s there, but the owner usually welcomes us with a broad smile and open arms, as though we’re his long lost relatives finally returning home. And it doesn’t matter if we haven’t been there for months, he still greets us like we were there just yesterday. I like that kind of gregariousness.

Yesterday, I figured I’d try my own hand at Cuban cuisine. I still had 2 lbs of ground beef in the fridge, and I remembered eating a beef dish at one time called ‘Picadillo Cubano’. It’s a delectable concoction of ground beef that is slowly braised in white wine, with capers, olives & raisins. It’s usually served over white rice, with black beans and fried plantains on the side, but it turns out it’s also often used as a filling for empanadas. Some add potatoes to it, other don’t and it seems to be the topic of many debates about authenticity. Personally, I think it’s one of those dishes that has local flair and varies depending on whom you ask… Either way, it’s seriously delicious and we cleaned off our plates in record time. As an added bonus to the fantastic flavor, it’s very budget-friendly and a breeze to make. Gloria Estefan’s nana was right on the money with this one.

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PICADILLO CUBANO
(as per Gloria Estefan’s nana)
– Approx. 2lbs of ground beef, the fatty kind (any ground beef with at least 15% fat)
– 1 medium-large onion, finely diced
1 large green bell pepper, finely diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of cumin
1 tsp of ground dry oregano
1 8oz can of tomato sauce
1 ½ cups of dry white wine
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp of capers (optional)
½ cup of ketchup
½ cup of raisins
½ cup of green pimiento-stuffed olives
Salt & pepper to taste
Olive oil for browning

In a large heavy pan with lid, brown the beef over medium-high heat until crumbled, stirring occasionally. Remove beef from pan and set aside, and drain all but 2Tbsp of the grease.

Add diced onions, bell pepper and minced garlic to the pan. Sauté over medium heat until onions turn translucent, stirring frequently. Sprinkle oregano & cumin over the vegetables, and give it a quick stir for another minute or so. Then add reserved beef and all of the remaining ingredients to the pan.

Cover the pan and allow beef mixture to simmer for 30-40 min, removing the lid for the last 5-10 min.

Serve beef stew over rice, alongside black beans and fried plantains for a true Cuban experience.
This dish goes great with a mojito, or two…

Rose Water & Lemon Turkish Delight

4 Aug

Yesterday evening, I drifted into a beautiful Pinterest dream and stumbled upon picture after picture of gorgeous Polish and Turkish pottery.

There are times where I reminisce about my life in Belgium with somewhat of a pang of homesickness in the pit of my stomach, and seeing that beautiful pottery made me miss the Turkish markets in my town there. Compared to so much cultural history and ‘couleur locale’ (local ‘color’), California seems sterile at times, despite the Hispanic and Asian influence we’re inundated with over here. It’s not the same. I miss the public open-air markets in Belgium. They usually run once a week and are set up like our farmers markets over here, just with a lot more variety in goods and tremendously more local color. They bring together a variety of people, from the old bitties to the young hipsters, all in search of hot waffles and exciting market finds. The many vendors or ‘markt kramers’ are celebrities on their own turf, luring customers by loudly broadcasting their wares in a thundering voice and colorful language, or blatantly flattering the female population in hopes of piquing their interest. Market days were fun, even when temperatures dropped to single digits and rain puddles formed alongside the cobblestone streets.

One of the things I would regularly indulge in whilst browsing around on market days, was delicious ‘lokum’ or Turkish Delight. Sweet, gooey & soft, it was the perfect kind of treat to reward yourself with after a busy morning at the market, or to make you forget you’re entering your fifth week of nonstop pounding rain & howling wind. Paired with a hot cup of mint tea, it brings a bit of Oriental flair into your home and you can pretend you went shopping at the ‘casbah’ or Turkish bazaar.

Turkish delight is easy to make. It’s traditionally flavored with rose water, like marzipan, but you can add whichever flavoring you prefer. I prefer the authentic rose water flavor, but I add in some fresh lemon juice as well. You could even add in some pistachio nuts, fresh mint leaves or a pinch of saffron. The possibilities for these gelees are endless.

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ROSE WATER & LEMON TURKISH DELIGHT
(Makes approx. 60 pieces)
– 1 2/3 cups of cold water
– 7 tsp of unflavored gelatin (approx. 4 packages)
– 2 1/3 cups of sugar
– 3 Tbsp of freshly squeezed lemon juice, strained
– 4 tsp of rose water
– 2 drops of red food coloring
– corn starch
– vegetable oil

Brush a 8x8x2-inch non-stick metal pan with the oil. Place 2/3 cup of water in a small bowl, and sprinkle gelatin in it. Set aside until gelatin softens, approx. 15 minutes.

Combine remaining 1 cup of water, sugar and lemon juice in a heavy medium saucepan. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves and syrup boils. Cover, increase the heat and boil 3 more minutes.

Uncover, attach a candy thermometer, and boil until temperature reaches 238F, which should be about 5 min.

Remove pan from the heat and add in gelatin mixture, store until completely dissolved. Mix in the rose water and food coloring (*), and pour into oil-brushed prepared pan. Let stand at room temperature until set, about 4 hours. Cover and chill overnight.

Cut candy into small squares and completely coat with corn starch. You can keep these in the fridge in an airtight container for approx. 1-2 weeks.

(*) Food coloring is strictly for color only and you can leave this out or add as much as little if you desire. You can also play around with different colors.

Baba Ganoush with Goat Cheese & Olives

29 Jul

In my post about Moroccan Spiced Meatloaf, I mentioned that I was at one time blessed to have lived in the buzzing, ethnic heart of Ghent, Belgium’s third largest city and melting pot of all kinds of Eastern cuisines.

I first discovered ‘Baba Ganoush’ in a small, dimly lit Turkish restaurant, complete with ornate belly-dancers and Kelim-covered poofs that served as seats around the knee-high, mahogany table tops. We had made our reservations a few weeks ahead of time, but when we arrived, somehow our reservation got botched and we had to wait well over an hour for our table. It turns out that this was actually a blessing in disguise, as the incredibly hospitable owner catered to us with gratuitous grilled pita bread and baba ganoush. Farouk, the bartender who made sure we weren’t thinking about the time that passed, kept the wine & conversation flowing with flair, and in the end, we sort of regretted being escorted to our table. To me, baba ganoush represents the warmth & earthy deliciousness of the flavorful ethnic dishes you find in the many small, family-run eateries in Belgium’s urban areas. Just like Mexican cuisine has become a staple in every day living in California, shoarma, doner kebab & things like baba ganoush are part of every day life in Belgium.

If you’ve never heard of baba ganoush, I urge you to keep an open mind as all it really is, is nothing more than a silky smooth & velvety roasted eggplant dip. It’s truly a bit of heaven in a small bowl. It’s perfect on bread or with pita chips, but also as a dip for roasted vegetables or a spread for sandwiches. It’s very versatile, and you’ll understand why the minute your lips meet this Middle-Eastern treasure.

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BABA GANOUSH WITH KALAMATA OLIVES & GOAT CHEESE
(Adapted from a recipe by ‘The Magic Carpet’)
– 2 large eggplant(s), whole
– 3-4 cloves of garlic, grated (use more for garlicky, and less for mild)
– 1 scallion, finely chopped
– 1/4 cup of tahini (*)
– 3 Tbsp of mild soft goat cheese (or thick Greek yogurt)
– juice of 1 small fresh lemon
– 1/3 cup of finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
– 1 tsp of ground cumin
– 1 tsp of smoked paprika
– 1/3 cup of finely chopped kalamata olives
– salt & pepper to taste
(*) Tahini is a paste that is similar in texture than peanut butter, but made from sesame seed, instead. It can usually be found at local specialty grocery stores.

Heat oven to 375F (200C). Wash eggplant and prick them all over with a fork. Roast in the oven, whole, for approx. 45-60 minutes until the skin is blackened and the flesh is soft.

Let cool and peel eggplant. When they are soft and perfectly roasted, this should be very easy.
Slice off the top of each eggplant and place peeled flesh in a large bowl, together with the garlic and spring onion. Purée with a hand mixer until you get a smooth consistency, or mash it all by hand with a fork.

Add the tahini, lemon juice, goat cheese, spices and chopped parsley, and stir together until well combined. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Add a pinch of cayenne pepper for a bit of heat.

Heap chopped olives on top. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle some toasted pine nuts over the top, and serve with wedges of pita bread or grilled toast.

Moroccan Spiced Meatloaf

8 Jul

I love the warmth and intense flavors you find in most ethnic cuisines. There’s something really homey about the scent of cinnamon, cardamom and cumin.

When I lived in Belgium, my humble 3-story house (commonly referred to as ‘the shoebox’ by a good friend of mine) stood in the beating heart of the Moroccan neighborhood in Ghent. Even though it’s been well over a decade since I called the ‘Jasmijnstraat’ my home, the inviting scent of that neighborhood is engraved into my olfactory system. I still remember stepping off the crowded tram after a long day’s work, and being greeted by the smell of roasted spiced meats and freshly baked sesame breads. I would often take the tram 1-2 blocks further, just so I could walk the extra few blocks home and pass by all the Moroccan bakeries & grocers. I loved that neighborhood. I’ve met some of the friendliest people there.

Even though our language-gap was roughly the size of the Mediterranean, my neighbors ‘Faisal & Mohammed’ welcomed me with traditional Moroccan hospitality when I moved into the neighborhood: mint tea & baklava. I didn’t catch on until much later that Faisal actually did not speak any Dutch and only spoke very broken French, but we shared a love for great home-cooked food. We frequently found common ground at the local spice vendors & small fresh produce markets, where she would often point and smile at me to indicate what the best flavor deal of the day was. As time went on, she would regularly send over her jeans-clad kids with dishes that were so delicious, that I may or may not have licked them clean. I plead the fifth.

Faisal & Mohammed, while very traditional in their Moroccan culture, loved & embraced Western culture, and married the best of both worlds. The recipe below is adapted from Faisal’s take on meatloaf. Don’t be alarmed by all the spices, it makes for a delicious meatloaf!

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MORROCAN SPICED MEATLOAF – served approx. 6 people
(adapted from a recipe by my former neighbor Faisal)

– 2 tbsp of olive oil
– 1 medium-sized carrot, grated
– 1 large rib of celery, diced very finely
– 6 green onions
– 1 clove of garlic, minced
– 1 lbs of lean ground beef
– ½ lbs of ground pork (or add ground lamb or more beef instead of pork )
– 1 tsp of salt
– a dash of cayenne pepper
– ¼ tsp of black pepper
– 1 ½ tsp of ground cardamom
– ½ tsp of ground cumin
– ½ tsp of ground cinnamon
– ¼ tsp of mace
– ¼ tsp of ground ginger
– 1 cup of breadcrumbs
– 1 large egg, whisked
– ¼ cup of milk
– 1 cup of curry ketchup, divided (for a basic homemade curry ketchup recipe, look here)

Heat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 9x5x3 loaf pan. In a skillet or saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil. Sauté the grated carrot and the celery until softened. Add green onions and garlic and sauté for 1 minute longer. Let cool slightly.

In a large bowl with hands, thoroughly combine the beef, pork, salt, peppers, spices, bread crumbs, egg, 1/2 cup of ketchup, and the milk. Stir in the sautéed vegetables until well blended.

Pack into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 1 hour. Spread the remaining 3 tablespoons of ketchup over the top of the loaf and bake for 15 minutes longer. Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

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