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Chinese Cucumber Salad 黄 瓜

This simple cold salad is a fairly straightforward interpretation of the kind of side dish you are likely to be served in almost any Chinese restaurant in Beijing.  Cucumber Salad is sometimes cool and refreshing, and other times mind-blowingly spicy.  In some restaurants you’ll find extremely simple Cucumber Salads, some consisting simply of cucumber and vinegar.  At the next place you could be served something equally complicated.  My interpretation blends two of my favorite Chinese ingredients in a simple dressing that I learned to make while in Beijing. Enoy!

Close up of the finished salad. Photo by my sister, Sarah. Thanks!

Ingredients

  • 2 English Cucumbers
  • 2 Hot Red Peppers (fresh or dried, seeded & coarsely chopped)
  • 4 cloves Garlic (peeled & halved)
  • 1/4 cup Sesame Oil
  • 1/2 cup White Rice Vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Sugar
  • 1/8 cup Pepper Flower Oil or Lucky Trio Oil(this ingredient is optional, but I highly recommend adding it)
  • 2 teaspoons Sesame Seeds
  • 1/2 cup Rehydrated Wood Ear Mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh Cilantro leaves

Directions

Start by mixing your dressing.  Combine the oils, vinegar, and sugar in a small bowl and whisk them until the sugar dissolves.  Give it a quick taste, and adjust it if necessary.  Add the garlic and chile peppers to the dressing and set it aside.  Next, chop the mushrooms into bite sized pieces and toss them into a large mixing bowl.  Chop the Cilantro leaves coarsely and add them to the bowl.  Now it’s time for your cucumbers.  Chop your cucumber into bite sized sticks, similar in shape to carrot sticks, but about half the length.  Toss them into the mixing bowl as well and mix them together with the mushrooms and cilantro.  Add the dressing (freshly whisked) and sesame seeds right before serving the salad.  Keep the dry salad cool and covered while you are waiting to serve it.

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Chicken Tikka Masala, Sort Of

Tonight Scott and I made The Kitchen Bible’s Chicken Tikka Masala recipe that he found through Cookstr.com.  Had I taken a close look at the recipe initially, I probably would have realized that though it was pretty tasty, it wasn’t too authentic.  The final dish had a very acidic taste, probably from the boat load of lime juice involved in the sauce and marinade.  It was also lacking in the spice department.  It contained plenty of cilantro, some red chili, and a bit of turmeric and cumin.  A classic Garam Masala spice blend would have been a better choice.  Anyway, the final dish was pretty tasty, but hardly a knock-out, and not all that much like what I expect Chicken Tikka Masala to taste like.  Next time I try for Tikka Masala, I think I am going to try Pioneer Woman’s version, which came highly recommended by my littlest sis, Cait.

Marinade Ingredients

Marinade Before & After Puree

Marinating Chicken

Making the Sauce

Finished Dish: Chicken Tikka Masala

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Not Exactly Enchiladas

Tonight I cheated a bit and used a few canned/pre-made things to cook dinner with.  One was a can of Enchilada Sauce ala Old El Paso, another was a set of low carb wraps, and the last was a packet of Taco Seasoning. (Old El Paso strikes again!) What I made with it all was something that I would call, “not exactly enchiladas”.  Where classic enchiladas are extremely delicious, they are also extremely time consuming.  Today, I wasn’t into the whole six hour cooking thing, so this funny little Mexican casserole was born.

Ingredients

  • 4 Low Carb Wraps
  • 2 tbs. Olive Oil
  • 1 tsp. chopped Garlic
  • 1 lb. Lean Ground Turkey
  • 1 packet Taco Seasoning
  • 1 can Red Enchilada Sauce
  • 1 can black beans (rinsed and drained)
  • crap loads of shredded Sharp Cheddar Cheese

Ingredients!

Directions

Start out by slathering the bottom of your casserole dish with olive oil and chopped garlic.  Because I had made roasted garlic that morning, my olive oil was lucky enough to have garlic bathing in it all day.  Lucky, but not necessary.   Oh! This would be a good time to preheat your oven to 375.  Next, toss your ground turkey into a fry pan and let it cook up until it is nice and brown.  Add the beans, break up the meat, then add 2/3 cup of water. (Or whatever your taco seasoning calls for.) Pop in the taco seasoning, then stir the meat and beans over the hot burner until all of the water evaporates.  If you are addicted to spicy food, like I am, go ahead and sprinkle on some extra Cayenne Pepper.   A little mouth fire never hurt anyone.  Now remove the mixture from the heat and set it aside.

Next, pour half of the enchilada sauce into a wide, shallow bowl.  Dip one wrap into the sauce, coating it completely.  Now fill the wrap with as much of the meat and bean mixture as it can hold.  Fold it up like a burrito and place it into the casserole dish.  Repeat this with each of your wraps.  Ideally, you’ll use up all your meat, but if you don’t, don’t worry.  It will taste pretty ding dang good when you scoop it up in a spoon, smother it with shredded cheese, and pop it into your mouth.  (See? It pays to be the one cooking dinner.)  Speaking of shredded cheese, you’ll need it soon.  Pour the remaining enchilada sauce over the top of your little burritos and then smother the whole thing with shredded cheese.

Place the casserole into the oven and let it bake for about 20 minutes.  The whole thing should be bubbling and oozing in a very seductive way.  If your casserole is already golden and crispy on top, then take it out.  If it needs a little extra push, try broiling it for an additional 2 – 5 minutes.   After you’ve removed it from the oven you’ll want to dive right in, but it’s best to let it sit for a few minutes before you get into it.  Try serving it along with sour cream, Spanish rice, or guacamole.  A salad would be a great addition as well, since this casserole is a bit in the heavy side.

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Cajun Chicken Pasta & Cajun Spice Mix Recipe

Tonight, I took on a recipe from The Pioneer Woman.  This spicy chicken stir fry is meant to be served over pasta, but it works well as a wet, soupy stir fry too.  Perfect for me and Scott Bobleo, who is currently on a low carb kick.  I cooked up some pasta on the side and we both had it our way.  The spice of this dish is totally adjustable, depending largely on the Cajun Spice Blend you are using.  I like it to be pretty hot, so when I blended my spices it was with a heavy hand on the Cayenne Pepper.  I even went so far as to toss in some Red Pepper Flakes toward the end.  Mwa ha ha.

Here’s the blend I created for this dish.  Naturally, I didn’t use all the spice, so I stored the rest in an empty spice jar that I had cleaned out and set aside last week.  Now next time I need some Cajun Spices they’ll be just a reach away.

Cajun Spice Blend

Cajun Spice Mix

Scheming the Spice Blend

  • 1/8 cup Salt
  • 1 tbsp. Cayenne Pepper
  • 2 tsp. Black Pepper
  • 2 tsp. White Pepper
  • 1 tbsp. Paprika
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Garlic Powder
  • 2 tbsp. Onion Powder
  • 1 tsp. Basil
  • 1/2 tsp. Chili Powder
  • 1/8 tsp. Thyme
  • 1/8 tsp. Clove Powder
  • 1/8 tsp. Mustard Powder

When you blend your own spices make sure to mix them well.  Many spices can clump up or settle to the bottom.  I throw mine into a mortar and pestle to make sure they are well blended.  You could also use a kick-ass blender or food processor. (Like a Magic Bullet.)

Due to necessity I had to change a few things from Pioneer Woman’s original recipe, but it still turned out really delicious.  It has a rich flavor that sings even under the heavy blanket of spice.  No fresh tomatoes, so I used a can instead. (I drained them as well as I could though)  And, sadly, I had no fettuccine, but I did have some angel hair.

Cajun Chicken Pasta

This particular meal was so good that Scott Bobleo has asked me to mark down his fondness for it.  That way, he’ll know what to call it next time he wants to eat it.  Oh and he wanted me to relay a huge “thank you” to The Pioneer Woman for inventing his new favorite meal.

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Carne Asada Fajitas (Diablo!)

Carne Asada Fajitas

What makes this dish so special is the lime based marinade that it is soaked in.  I adapted a recipe that I found on Simply Recipes to make it a little more to my liking.  By adding some Chinese Hot Peppers I increased the heat, and by adding a little Maple Syrup to the marinade, the sour flavor of the limes was tempered just enough to reduce the acidity a little bit.  If you prefer your spicy dishes on the mild side, just leave out the Chinese Hot Peppers.  If you’d prefer a truly mild steak, just half the amount of Jalapeno, or leave them out entirely.

Marinade Ingredients

Meat

  • 1 lb. thinly sliced Steak

Marinade

  • 2 Cloves Garlic, finely minced
  • 1 Jalapeno Pepper, seeded and sliced
  • 2 dried Chinese Hot Pepper, crushed and toasted (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon crushed, toasted Cumin Seed
  • 1 teaspoon Chili Powder
  • 1/4 cup finely minced Cilantro
  • The juice of 2 Limes
  • 1 tablespoon White Vinegar
  • 1/4 cup Olive Oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Real Maple Syrup or Honey
  • 1/4 cup Olive Oil

Veggies

Toppings

  • Sour Cream
  • Cheddar Cheese
  • Sliced, Fresh, Avocado
  • Chopped, Fresh Cilantro
  • Fresh Tomatoes or Pico de Gallo

Directions
Start by preparing the marinade.  Toast the Hot Pepper and the Cumin Seed in a toaster oven for just a few minutes.  Remove them as soon as they become fragrant.  Crush them using a mortar and pestle.  If you don’t have a mortar and pestle (or a toaster oven) you can always use powdered herbs instead.  In a small mixing bowl, combine the Lime Juice, Vinegar, Olive Oil, Sugar and Maple Syrup(or Honey).  Whisk them together, then add the Spices and minced Cilantro.  Dredge the thinly sliced steak in the marinade, then lay it flat in a casserole dish.  Cover the steak with the remaining marinade.  Allow the steak to marinade for 1 – 4 hours.  Meanwhile, prep the veggies by cutting the Onions paper thin slices, and the Red and Green Peppers into thin strips.

Marinading the Steak

The steak will cook very quickly, so when the steak is almost ready, begin to cook the veggies.  Before you get started, prep your toppings and warm the tortillas.  Caramelize the onions first, and when they are ready, toss in the pepper strips.  You won’t have to cook them for long.  Just heat them up a bit.  Set the veggies aside, and cook up your steak.

Peppers and Onions

It can either be grilled, or sauteed in a pan, but either way, make sure not to overcook it.  Sear it quickly on both sides, the exact timing will depend on how you like your steak, and how thick you’ve got it sliced.  If you pan fry your steaks, make sure the drop the sliced jalapenos into the pan.  They’ll be a delicious addition to the fajitas.

Grilling the Steak

Serve it up nice and hot!  Smother your fajitas with whatever toppings you like. My favorites are all listed above.

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Caramelizing Onions

I have a real weakness for Caramelized Onions.  They are delicious on almost anything.  Some of my favorite things to throw Caramelized Onions on are Perogis, Burritos, and Paninis, but that’s only a teeny glimmer of their usefulness.  I have my sister, Sarah to thank for this technique, a simple, but incredibly tasty way to prepare Caramelized Onions.  This is a wee bit time consuming, and you’ll have to apologize to your favorite fry pan afterward for making it a pretty mess.  But while your dish pan hands may curse you, your mouth will be your BFF.

Onions, sliced wafer thin

Start by slicing your onions as thinly as possible.  The thinner the slice, the better they will turn out.  Also, make sure to chop a whole lot more onions than you think you’ll need.  They’ll reduce by more than 50% in size.  P.S. It is best to use Yellow, White, or Sweet Vidalia Onions for this.  Red Onions won’t turn out so well.

Raw Onions

Saute the Onions over medium to high heat in a skillet with about 1 or 2 tablespoons of Vegetable Oil.  Don’t use Olive Oil.  It has too low of a burn point.  Try something more sturdy, such as a Soybean or Canola Oil.  Cook the Onions, stirring frequently until they begin to clear.

Cleared Onions

Once the Onions clear, increase the heat to high and begin stirring the Onions constantly.  They will begin to yellow, and then brown.  You can stop cooking them any time after they have begun to brown.  The longer you cook them, the sweeter and more caramelized they will become.  Cooking them for a shorter time will allow them to retain more of their moisture and size.  They can be made anywhere from gold to dark brown, or anywhere in between.

Caramelized Onions

Once you’ve got the technique down, try tossing the Onions on anything you please.  Hint: They taste pretty sensational with Cheddar and BBQ Sauce.

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How to Make Yummy Chinese Dumplings

While I was in China, I learned a bit about Chinese cooking at a place called The Hutong.   It’s a very cool little Arts Center that focuses on culture, art, wellness, and much to my delight, cooking!  My very first class at The Hutong was on Dumpling Making.  Dumplings, as you may or may not know, kick ass.  They are delicious little pockets of joy and can be made in countless varieties, including some very tasty vegetarian/vegan combinations.  I’ve made them since the class, most recently for my sister, Heather’s birthday dinner.  I’m no professional.  In fact, my dumplings tend to look a little wonky.  Sophia, my dumpling teacher, told me that Chinese people call dumplings like mine “ass dumplings” (since they look like doughy little derrieres).  Well, they may look like hineys, but they taste like heaven.  That’s what counts, right?

By the way, these types of dumplings are called Jaozi (pronounced sort of like jow-zuh, but not quite). They are quite a bit like Pot Stickers or Japanese Gyoza.

So, without further ado, here is a crash coarse in dumpling making, ala me, based on what I learned at The Hutong.  I won’t repost their complete recipe, but I can give you a pretty in depth run down.  If you have any questions, please let me know!  I’m happy to help.

Dumpling Ingredients

Fillings
When we arrived, our teacher, Sophia, had laid out a spread of ingredients in small white bowls.  We were encouraged to sniff and taste each ingredient (expect the raw meat, of course) and learned a little about each one, and how it was prepped for inclusion in the dumplings:

Pork: The raw pork was ground, like hamburger meat.  Sophia told us that it is best to find pork that is heavily marbled with fat when making dumplings, as the fat is necessary for a smooth texture.

Eggs: These were scrambled in a hot wok with a little salt and oil, then chopped finely.

Tofu: Sophia used a very firm, but in all other regards, basic white tofu.  It was crumbled, then stir fried in oil to reduce its moisture.

Carrots: The carrots we used were minced in a juicer, but you can also use a food processor, or (heaven help you) a veggie peeler and knife to achieve the same, finely minced texture.

Pepper Oil: Pepper Oil is made by infusing dried flower peppers (red or green depending on personal taste) in oil.  Sophia uses a plain Soybean Oil and Red Flower Peppers and heats them over a low flame in her wok.  You can strain the Flower Peppers out of the oil when it cools, or leave them in it for visual flair.  But don’t let them wind up inside your dumplings. That would not be so nice.

Pepper Flowers

Black Wood Fungus: Also called “Wood Ear Fungus”, these mushrooms are purchased dried and then reconstituted using room temperature salted water.  The dried fungus looks like a black rose, but after it is hydrated it looks more like a squashy pile of seaweed.  Mince it finely after it is hydrated for use in dumplings. On a side note, according to Sophia, these mushrooms are used to cool the body, and cleanse the digestive system in Chinese medicine.  They can supposedly help with gall stones and other various digestive issues, but should be avoided if you are an overly chilly person.

Dark Soy Sauce:
A thick, dark, and intensely flavored soy sauce that is usually used on meats. This is used only with meat dumplings, as the flavor is too strong for veggies.

Glass Noodle:
Sophia had a good time making us guess what these stiff, white noodles were made of.  Our guesses included: rice, radish, and vermicelli, but were all totally wrong.  These special noodles are made from green beans and peas.  They become totally clear when cooked, and have a very unique, elastic-like texture.  They should be boiled for 3-5 minutes, or until they become totally transparent, then drained, but not rinsed.  When they cool enough to handle them, chop them into little, 1/2 centimeter bits.

Ginger: We used fresh, finely diced ginger, but Sophia assured us that you can also use dried ginger or crystallized ginger according to your taste.  An interesting note, the preparation of ginger, as well as the part of the ginger root used, affects is purpose when it comes to Chinese Medicine.

Shitake Mushroom: In China, these little brown mushrooms are readily available both fresh and dried.  According to Sophia, the dried mushrooms have a better flavor for dumplings, so we used the dried kind.  These are hydrated the same way the Black Wood Fungus is – in room temperature salt water.

Scallions (Chinese Leeks):
In China they have these enormous scallions, which they call either chives or scallions in English.  I am not sure, but I think they might be closer to leeks in actuality.  They use them constantly in Chinese cuisine.  For dumplings, they chop them very finely.  You can also use regular old scallions if you prefer.

Mystery Greens:
There is a very dark green leaf that is minced and added very commonly to dumplings in Beijing.  Our teacher, Sophia, called it Dill at first, but after we all smelled it we decided it definitely could not be dill.  She used the word “fennel” next, but I’m still not 100% percent sure it was fennel.  It had a slightly herbaceous, lemony aroma, but has a texture similar to spinach once its cooked. Up until the class I had assumed it was spinach or the dark leafed baby Chinese cabbage that I saw everywhere I went.

The Fillings
To make Veggie Dumpling Filling, you simply mix and match any non-meat fillings you like, then top them off with some Pepper Oil and a little salt.  (Tip: Dark Soy Sauce isn’t very good in veggie dumplings, AND if you are not a vegan, you may want to add a little egg white and whip the mixture up to make it a little more firm.) For meat dumplings, the process is a wee bit more standardized.  First, stir in a few teaspoons of Dark Soy Sauce into the meat, followed by the minced scallions, and some salt.  Crack an egg white into the mix and stir (in only one direction) until the egg whites whip up and get the mixture nice and sticky.  Once the mixture has gotten nice and firm, you can add your Mystery Greens and some Pepper Oil.  Add more Salt and Soy Sauce to taste, and maybe a little ginger if the mood strikes you.

The Dough
The dough is very basic, just flour and water, kneaded into a soft, but not sticky ball.  After you finish kneading the dough, set it aside covered with a bowl or in a lidded dish for about 10 minutes.  You can enhance the nutritional value of the dough (as well as the appearance) by using vegetable juice in place of water.  We used carrot juice and spinach juice, but there are countless other juices that could be used as well.  Beet juice, for instance, would create lovely purple dumplings.

Dumpling Dough in Three Colors

Once the dumpling dough is ready, it is rolled into a tube that measures a little less than an inch in diameter.  The tube is then chopped into 1 inch nuggets and dusted with dry flour.  We rounded the nuggets, then flattened them into discs using the palms of our hands.  You could probably use a cup or a mallet to get more perfect discs, but I’m not sure that’s really necessary.  The tricky part comes next.  You’ll need to flour your work surface, and get yourself a very small rolling pin.  Pinch one edge of your disc, then roll firmly into the center on three sides, (rotating each time).  Continue to roll the pin in very deep on each turn until you get your disc to be about 3 inches or so wide.  The goal is to make the inside of the disc thicker than the outside, so that the bit that holds the filling is strong, and the excess dumpling isn’t too chewy.  This took some practice, and for later inspiration, I took a short video of Sophia rolling her dough like an expert.

Stuffing and Folding
Another slightly tricky part, filling and folding the dumplings is a delicate art.  To a perfectionist, this activity could be maddening, but if you simply want to get that sucker closed, it’s not so hard.  Lay the wrapper flat in your palm, then use your other hand to scoop the filling into the middle. Not too much, not too little.  Pinch the middle of the wrapper closed first, then carefully pinch one of the edges together, and fold the remaining opening in the same direction that you folded the edge.  Repeat on the other side, and viola! Your little joazi is ready to go.

Cooking the Jaozi
After we had a platter full of dumplings which ranged in beauty from flawless to lumpy and weird (“Sexy Ass Dumplings” as Sophia says) we boiled ourselves a wok fill of water and dumped those suckers in!  This part excited me, can you tell?  I love boiling things in woks.  The steam!  The danger!  It’s really pretty thrilling.  Anyway, we boiled them until, and I quote, “they sink to the bottom, then rise to the top, then sink to the bottom again, then rise again, then sink and rise once more.”  Another clue to tell that they had finished cooking was to look at their shape.  Dumplings puff up while they cook, and when they’ve finished they shrink up like saran wrap.  You can also poke at the meat ones a bit to see how firm they are.

Cooking Dumplings

We also pan fried some, which were really really delicious.  To pan fry the dumplings, you heat oil in a wok, then place the raw dumplings in the pan, standing on their little dumpling bottoms.  Let them cook for a bit, until they become golden down below, then add a generous portion of water, and cover then pan.  You’ll know their finished based on the aforementioned saran wrap and poke tests, but you cannot, unfortunately rely on the sink and rise test this time.

Dipping
Jaozi are meant to be dipped!  They are most commonly, if not always, served with malt vinegar.  Most folks toss some hot chili pepper and sesame oil into the mix. (Myself included) And some people even like to add a little plain soy sauce to the equation.  Any way you dip them though, they should be pretty ding dang tasty.

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