Monday, April 28, 2014

Simple Steamed Broccoli with Lemon

It's common to dress cooked green vegetables with lemon juice. I have a real problem with this. First, lemon juice is powerful stuff and can overpower everything and make the flavor too tart. That probably explains the generous dousing with butter or oil that follows the lemon juice. Another problem with lemon juice is its acidity. You know that dull green color that comes from overcooking green vegetables? That happens when you put an acid on green vegetables too. Ick. If you dress a big bunch of broccoli with lemon juice and don't finish it, next time you look at it, it's going to be dull green. And mushy too because the acid softens up the fiber. Double ick.

I do like the bright lemon flavor on green vegetables, however. Here's my solution: use lemon zest. You can use just lemon zest and oil. Or you can mix the lemon zest with some fresh herbs like parsley or thyme. Both of those herbs are bright, enhancing the lemon even more. If you can find lemon thyme, even more lemon! It's super easy. You can use frozen herbs instead of fresh. A light squeeze of lemon juice is nice but only for broccoli you will eat right away.

This recipe is a variation on our Simple Steamed Broccoli. At the very end, it's tossed with a bit of lemon zest. Instant lemony flavor without the overwhelming tart taste and it holds up in the fridge great.

Simple Steamed Broccoli with Lemon Zest
(serves 4-6, costs $3.13)

2 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
1 lb. broccoli, broken into small florets and stems peeled and cut into 1/4" slices
zest of 1 lemon
1 Tablespoon fresh minced parsley or 1 teaspoon thyme leaves (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ tsp salt, or more to taste
lemon wedges, optional

Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a medium saucepan or skillet with a cover over medium heat.

Add garlic and saute until fragrant but not browned. Don't burn it - it turns bitter.

Add broccoli and toss to cover with oil. Add 1 Tablespoon water,  which should immediately create a lot of steam. Cover and steam broccoli for 5-6 minutes, until crisp-tender. Try a piece after 4 minutes if you like your broccoli crisp. If it's not cooked enough, cook for another minute or two.

Sprinkle with lemon zest, remaining oil, salt, and herbs, if using. Mix to combine and serve with lemon wedges, if desired. Can be refrigerated. Excellent served cold but you may need more salt. Cold temperatures dull flavors.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Spicy Stir-fried Cucumber

Americans don't usually eat cooked cucumber. But, it's very tasty cooked, holding onto its crunch and absorbing flavors readily, like stir-fried zucchini. It cooks in a flash - just enough time to heat it up is enough.

Spicy Stir-Fried Cucumber
(serves 4, costs $2.40)

2 cucumbers
1 Tablespoon oil
½ red pepper, diced (optional; it adds nice color)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced or grated ginger
1-2 Tablespoons minced Jalapeño chile
1 Tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
¼ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt

Peel the cucumbers. Cut off the very ends; they tend to be bitter. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds using a spoon. Cut them into 1/8's lengthwise (so cut in half again, then once more). Cut the strips into 1-1½" pieces.

Heat a wok or skillet until very hot. Add oil, ginger, garlic, and chile. Stir fry for 10 seconds, then add cucumber and red pepper. Stir fry for 1 minute. Sprinkle on soy sauce, sugar, and salt. Stir fry for 3 minutes. Serve immediately.

Note: Other spicy things - Chinese chile sauce with garlic, Siracha sauce, serranos - can be used instead if you want more spicy punch. Jalapeños are fairly tame, by chilehead standards.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mahi-mahi roasted with Tomatoes

Mexico is a country of rich coastal fisheries. There is a long Pacific coastline, the Bay of California, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Therefore, it is no surprise that there is a lot of great fish cooking going on there. Fish is probably not what most people think about first for Mexican food. Yes, fish tacos have a gained a foothold in the US but these represent Ensenada, a single Pacific city's contribution to seafood cookery (and even that has been refracted through the lens of California cooking in the US). No denying the deliciousness of Baja fish tacos but there is much more swimming in from Mexico, a country with a rich and varied cuisine.

This is a simple yet impressive dish that uses the flavors of Mexico to great advantage. Though the recipe says mahi-mahi (called dorado in Spanish speaking countries), you could use fillets of rockfish, snapper, or corvina. Mahi-mahi is a delicious meaty fish. It's very common worldwide, so it is considered sustainable.

Mahi-Mahi Roasted with Tomatoes and Cilantro
(serves 4, costs $16 when mahi-mahi is $8/lb)

4 fillets of mahi-mahi, 5-6 oz. each, skin removed
salt and black pepper
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch of scallions, thinly sliced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 cup minced cilantro (or use parsley if you don't like cilantro)
4 large plum tomatoes, diced (or use 3 cups drained diced canned tomatoes)
¼ cup tequila mixed with ¼ cup water

Preheat oven to 450°F. Season mahi-mahi on both side with salt and pepper. Use 1 teaspoon of olive oil to grease a 9"x9" baking dish. Mix together the scallions, garlic, most of the cilantro (reserve about ¼ cup for garnish), tomatoes, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Place ½ of the tomato mixture in the baking dish and lay the fish on top. Top with the remaining tomatoes. Drizzle with the rest of the olive oil and pour the tequila-water mixture around the fish. Bake for 20 minutes. The exact time will depend on the thickness of the fish fillets; mahi-mahi is usually 1" thick. The fish is done when it's no longer translucent and flakes easily with a fork. Garnish with cilantro and serve. Good with rice with spaghetti or roasted potatoes.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What NOT to eat: Trans Fat

[This post was prompted by the movie "The Help." There is a great scene on the magic of Crisco. As funny as that scene is, I suggest you do not follow Minnie's advice. Though Crisco has been reformulated to greatly reduce trans fat, it still contains some.]

There are very few absolutes in diet. You can get away with eating a little bit of "bad" foods with no ill effects (remember, I said a little bit). But, what if you don't know how much you are eating? This is the story with trans fat (more specifically industrially produced trans fatty acids). Partially hydrogenated trans fat is a creation of chemists. Solid fats and liquid fats are very different, cooking-wise. Partial hydrogenation is a way of turning a naturally (mostly) unsaturated fat such as soybean oil into something that acts like a saturated fat. Think Crisco. Great for frying and making pie crusts. Also great for many processed foods, everything from crackers to chewing gum. For many years, margarine was a leading source of trans fat, the thinking being it was better than the saturated fat in butter. Unfortunately, this turned out to be far from the truth. Partially hydrogenated fats are particularly bad for your cardio-vascular health.

By 2008, packaged foods in the US were labeled with their trans fat content, though the information on nutrition labels is incomplete. We should eat 0 g of artificial trans fat, but foods with less than 0.5 g can be labeled as 0 g. Which means, you can get a non-trivial amount of trans fat eating foods that are labeled as trans fat free.

But, if it isn't on the nutrition label, how can you know if it has trans fat in it? Read the ingredients - anything with partially hydrogenated (whatever) oil contains trans fat that you do not want to be eating. Since many foods that you might eat daily (think sandwich bread, margarine, fast food, ramen noodles, cookies, microwave popcorn, and frozen dinners) may contain little amounts, it starts to add up. Read the labels.

The FDA is planning to revoke partially hydrogenated oils' Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) status. That would mean you could stop looking at ingredient lists. But, don't expect this to happen fast, sadly. The food industry is already rallying the troops.

Photo Attributed to: Chemical Heritage Foundation [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Easy Stroganoff

With the emphasis on easy. I'm laid up with a badly sprained ankle so my husband is doing the cooking. He's not exactly a gourmet cook and he doesn't want to spend too much time in the kitchen. I'd say he perfectly represents the type of cooks I'm trying to reach with this blog. He got to test my latest recipe, a very easy stroganoff.

Stroganoff is usually made with beef (if you want to impress, make it with beef filet), but I had some ground turkey that needed to be turned into dinner. Sometimes you need to use what you got (or what's on sale) and ground turkey isn't that different than ground beef. Generally, I'm not a fan of canned condensed soup because it contains a lot of ingredients that are far from natural. But, in an emergency, canned soup would work. My perspective is you shouldn't depend on convenience food all the time, but it has its moments. And, I offer a homemade replacement for the creamy soup here too, which is what I'd make if I wasn't stuck on the couch.

It's important that you remove the stroganoff from the heat before adding the sour cream. Sour cream (regular or low-fat) is not able to withstand boiling and it will separate if overheated.

Easy Stroganoff
(serves 4-6)

2 Tablespoon oil or butter, divided
1 pound ground turkey
8 oz. sliced white mushrooms
2 Tablespoons dried minced onion
1 teaspoon instant beef bouillon
⅛ teaspoon garlic powder
1 Tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon Kitchen Bouquet (optional; it's for color, not flavor)
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup (see homemade version below)
½ cup sour cream (full-fat or reduced-fat)

Heat ½ Tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add turkey and cook until cooked through and browned. Remove to a bowl. Heat the rest of the oil in the same skillet. Add mushrooms and cook them for about 4 minutes. Add back the turkey, dried onion, beef bouillon, garlic powder, ketchup, Kitchen Bouquet (if using), and cream of mushroom soup. Heat to boiling, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add sour cream, stirring to combine. Serve over hot noodles.

To make a homemade version of canned condensed cream of mushroom soup:

2 tablespoons butter
a couple of mushrooms, finely chopped
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup low sodium chicken or beef stock
½ cup 2% or whole milk
a healthy pinch of dried thyme
a pinch each of onion and garlic powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Heat butter in a medium saucepan. Sauté the mushrooms until softened. Sprinkle on flour and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring. Whisk in broth and milk until the mixture is smooth. Cook over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens. Stir in seasonings.

You can also use this recipe to make other cream of whatever soups. For cream of chicken, leave out the mushrooms and use chicken stock. For cream of celery, replace the mushrooms with a stalk of minced celery.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lox Sushi

Another nice piece of sushi rolling from one of my students
Last "recipe" from this week's class: hand rolls stuffed with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and typical bagel & lox condiments. We used capers but you could use thinly sliced red onions, strips of cucumber, diced tomatoes, or diced avocado. Use what you have, use what you like.

You can find instructions on how to make a hand roll in the tuna poke post. You can find instructions on making a sushi roll like the one in the photo all over youtube. I like this succinct video best but you don't need to wrap the roll in plastic to cut it. Make sure to dampen your sharp knife before each cut and wipe off the blade after each cut.

To make a lox roll, you'll need:

  • thin strips of smoked salmon
  • small sticks of cream cheese (see below on how to cut it) 
  • sushi rice
  • sheets of nori
  • toasted sesame seeds
Beyond these, you will want one or more tasty accompaniments:
  • capers
  • thinly sliced strips of red onion
  • strips of cucumbers (peeled if you like and seeded if not an English cucumber)
  • diced avocado
  • diced tomato
  • strips of pickled jalapeño (not traditional but very tasty)
It can be hard to cut up cream cheese. It's very sticky. The trick is to slightly freeze it before trying to cut it. Put a chunk of cream cheese in the freezer for 20 minutes before you want to cut it. If it softens up while you are trying to cut it, stick it back in the freezer for a few minutes and try again. Also, don't try to use reduced-fat cream cheese; it's much too soft and sticky to cut. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Seaweed Salad

Wakame seaweed salad. The color of seaweed varies from brown to olive green to bright green.
This one is a little unusual. Seaweed seems like a strange thing to make into a salad, but it works really well. It's slightly crunchy, quick, and fairly cheap. A little bit of dried seaweed goes a long way - it expands a lot when soaked in warm water. It absorbs water fast, so in 5 minutes, you can eat it. And unlike lettuce, you can dress it ahead and it will keep quite nicely the fridge. In fact, it gets better as the greens absorb the dressing.
Rehydrated wakame
There are many types of seaweed. The ones I like best in salad are wakame and arame (and hijiki, but high levels of arsenic have been measured in hijiki, so you probably want to avoid that one). If you have had miso soup to start a Japanese meal, you have had wakame. It's the green leaves in miso soup. Arame is a little sweeter than wakame and has more crunch. You soak the dried seaweed in warm tap water for about 5 minutes to reconstitute, rinse it off, squeeze lightly to get rid of excess water, and they're ready to go. No cooking needed. The flavor is earthy with a whiff of the ocean, like a walk along the beach. Seaweed is not particularly salty but very savory from all the minerals of the sea.

Seaweed Salad
(serves 6-8)

⅔ cup dried seaweed
1 Tablespoon soy sauce (low sodium, preferably)
2 Tablespoon natural rice vinegar (see Note)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon Asian sesame oil
½ - 1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger or pickled ginger
a pinch of cayenne or a few drops of Chinese chile oil
salt to taste (none if using full sodium soy sauce)
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

Reconstitute seaweed by soaking it in warm tap water for 5 minutes. Remove any hard bits you find. Drain, rinse with cool water, and squeeze to remove excess water.

If the seaweed is in large pieces, chop it coarsely. Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl. Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 4 days. The seaweed will soak up more flavor as it sits.

Note: you can use seasoned rice vinegar - sushi vinegar - but don't add any sugar or salt to the salad because sushi vinegar has salt and sugar added.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Making Sushi: Tuna Poke Rolls

Poke and smoked salmon sushi by one of my students. These kids do good work!
We are rolling some rice tonight. My college students are making sushi. One of the great things about sushi: you can use your imagination to combine ingredients to make a roll that is tasty to you. Since we're on a budget in these classes, we need to stretch expensive ingredients. High quality fish is not cheap, so sushi rolls are a great way to make things like ahi tuna go further. We made up a tuna poke (po-key), which is Hawaii's version of tuna sashimi. It's often served on fried wonton chips but here we rolled it inside a sushi roll.

How do you get high quality ahi tuna? Use you nose. It should smell like fresh mild meat, with no fishy odor. It has a  minerally whiff of the sea, but that's it. Not strong at all. Almost all ahi is flash-frozen at sea, so don't be deterred by frozen ahi. If you buy it still frozen, you'll know that it had no chance to degrade on its way to you. It's easier to dice the tuna when it is still slightly frozen, so don't defrost it totally before starting the poke.

Tuna Poke Rolls
(makes about 12-16 rolls, depending on how much tuna you stuff in each)

12 oz. ahi tuna, finely diced (it's easier to dice if partially frozen)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
½ Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
a pinch or two of salt
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1 batch sushi rice
nori sheets, 4"-5" high by 7" long (about ½ a sheet)

Possible poke enhancements:
  • diced or sliced avocado
  • sliced cucumber
  • mayonnaise
  • wasabi paste
The poke is great on its own in a roll, but any of these things will make it even better.

The simplest roll is a hand roll, a sushi cone! The trick with sushi rice is work with moistened hands. Sushi rice is really, really sticky. But, if you moisten your hands before grabbing and spreading the rice on the nori, it won't stick to your hands. When you put the rice down on the nori, don't press is down too much. Lightly press it with your fingertips so you don't smash the rice kernels.

Here's what it looks like filled but before rolling up. You'll need about 3 Tablespoons rice.

To roll, bring the bottom left corner up to the upper middle edge, where the rice ends. The top of the cone is the upper left corner.
The roll, turned around. To seal the bottom, you roll the naked nori over the stuffed side.
To finish, moisten the naked nori slightly and fold it around the bottom of the cone. Then eat! No fork required.
Dahlia enjoying her poke roll

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sushi Rice

Class this week is simple sushi. Sushi is about the rice, spiked with a little bit of rice vinegar,  sugar, and salt. It's important to use a rice that says "sushi rice" on the bag. Some common brands are Calrose,  Kokuho Rose, or Nishiki. Sushi rice has enough soluble starch to stick together. No one wants a hand roll that self-destructs before you get it to your mouth. It's also important to rinse sushi rice well because it is coated in starch when packaged, but this starch is supposed to be removed before cooking.

You can buy sushi vinegar - rice vinegar premixed with sugar and salt. But, you can easily make your own. I have discovered sushi vinegar is easier to find in supermarkets than natural rice vinegar - the vinegar without the salt and sugar - so don't fret too much if you have to use the premixed variety. There is also lots of variation in the proportion of vinegar, sugar, and salt to rice in homemade recipes. This recipe is a proportion that I found tasty but it isn't the only way to mix it. It's more tart than sweet and not very salty.

The rice is cooked, then the sushi vinegar is sprinkled over the hot rice and mixed so that every grain is coated with vinegar. This also cools down the rice. To speed the cooling, you can fan the rice. If you are coordinated, you can mix while you fan but it works if you alternate mixing with fanning. Or you can enlist a friend to fan while you mix. Sushi is a great dish for a party, after all, so get your friends to help you.

You want the rice to be at room temperature when you roll it up. You can make it a few hours ahead but don't refrigerate it. It will get too hard and crunchy if it's cold.

Sushi Rice
(makes about 3 cups of rice)

1 cup raw sushi rice
1 ¼ cup water
¼ cup sushi vinegar

Rinse the sushi rice well with cold water until the water runs clear. Let the rice sit for 30 minutes. Place the rice in a medium saucepan and add water. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring gently until it boils. Once the water reaches a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steam for 5 minutes. Gently spoon into a large bowl (wood is traditional, but plastic or glass will do) and sprinkle on frac12; of the vinegar. Gently mix and fan until all the liquid has been absorbed. Add the rest of the vinegar, and continue to mix and fan until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooled to room temperature. If you aren't ready to roll the sushi , you can cover the rice with a damp towel (to keep it from drying out) and let it sit at room temperature for up to 3 hours.

Sushi Vinegar
(makes 1 cup)
1 cup natural rice vinegar
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon salt

Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan. Heat until sugar and salt dissolve. Let cool before using. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for about 1 month.