12 February 2010

Homesick for Chinese Food

With the actual date occurring this weekend, we celebrated Chinese New Year about two weeks ago and were a tad bit early. My daughter's art class was making elaborate dragons in honor of the holiday, while decorations covered every major shopping destination in the city. And, maybe more importantly, my kid's were homesick for "Chinese food delivery like we used to get when we lived in Seattle" and my husband was out of town on a business trip. I desperately wanted to curb the homesickness and needed a long activity to fill the evening.

I suggested a Chinese New Year celebration dinner, complete with costumes, decorations, music and Chinese food. Excitement filled our house and I took a deep breath knowing that if I pulled this off, I'd have two happy kids and I'd be completely exhausted by the end of the evening. So, I pulled out a stack of red construction paper, gold glitter pens, scissors and random animal stickers (I figured that we didn't have to just celebrate the year of the tiger!). The kids whipped up some decor, while I browsed iTunes for something appropriate and prepped up some veggies and egg rolls. We set the table with chopsticks and a tiny little tea set.

Then, I sent the kids to change into costumes from their extensive costume closet. Thrilled, they took a solid 20 minutes quietly sorting through options regularly yelling, "don't peek mama!" The electric thrill of two happy kids and a fun evening ran down my spine. I poured tea and my kids walked into the room, holding hands, with little smirks of pride playing at their lips. Decked out in layers of colorful Mardi Gras-esque beaded necklaces, my son was shirtless wearing a pair of traditional Thai pants. My daughter wore her treasured Loy Krathong outfit consisting of a pale turquoise silky shirt and matching ornate baggy Thai pants. They posed for pictures and grinned from ear to ear as they, in celebration of the Chinese New Year, ate Chinese take out "just like they used to get in Seattle."

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 79:
Egg Rolls
Unfortunately, these really do need to be fried heavily to taste magnificent. Use enough oil to cover half the roll at a time. Cook them until they are a deep golden to develop a strong crunch. Serve with some sweet and sour sauce and enjoy hot!

1 package of large egg roll wrappers*
thin rice noodles (vermicelli noodles), 1/4 package
1 carrot, cut into matchstick size pieces
1 green onion, sliced into thin rounds
1 cup of bean sprouts
1 cup of packed spinach
1 teaspoon dried ginger
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
soy sauce, about 1 tablespoon
cornstarch, for dusting work surface
Veggie oil, for frying

Cook the rice noodles in boiling water, following package instructions. Do not overcook. Rinse in cold water and place into a bowl. Add the ginger, red pepper flakes and a few shakes of soy sauce. Toss to coat, drain off any extra liquid, if necessary, and set aside. Working with one egg roll wrapper at a time, lay the wrapper on a surface lightly dusted with cornstarch. Place a small amount of noodles, lay several leaves of spinach, a few carrots and a few sprouts. Wrap by folding up the two ends, then roll, using a slightly dampened finger to adhere final seam. Repeat with each wrapper and set on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Heat the oil in a deep, heavy bottom pan and add completed rolls, working in batches. cook until golden brown on one side, flip once and cook other side to match. Remove from oil, place on parchment lined cookie sheet and repeat until all the rolls are cooked. Serve hot (can be reheated in the oven once), with sweet and sour sauce.

*If your store doesn't carry them fresh, check the frozen foods section.

07 February 2010

Discovery: I hate coconut cream pie.

As a kid I would press my nose up against the bakery cases admiring all the cream pies that my mom would never buy. And, as an adult I've continued a fascination with cream pies but have never purchased them. Instead, the idea to make a cream pie at home gets pushed to the back of my brain with certainty that "some day" I'll try one out. Sure, I've had bites and slices here and there at various people's parties... I think. Clearly, none made a strong impression. And, my childhood home wasn't a stranger to pie. As a Washington State native (and with a mom that makes the world's best pie crust... yes, really), hot apple pie was often cooling on the stove top.

Which is why this is such a startling revaltion to me. I actually despise coconut cream pie. How does a lover of all things coconut rectify their disgust for that creamy coconut filling? How does one admire the toasted coconut specked fillings and lofts of cream for years and years... and end up despising such things of beauty?

Three days of baking. Four coconut cream pies later. Tweaking each in an attempt to meet my high expectations of desiring to adore coconut cream pies. I have created what is a fantastic recipe according to my guinea pig friends, family members and neighbors. And, yet, I still despise coconut cream pie. Here's the winning recipe that everyone is raving about. You be the judge and see if you join the leagues of cream pie lovers or join me as an admirer from afar.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 78:
Coconut Cream Pie
After trying four different versions, this is the coconut cream pie that took the cake (so to speak). I found that coconut extract made the pie very fake tasting, even with real extract. And, I found that extra coconut flakes created an overly flecked texture. Using pure 100 percent coconut milk (make sure you don't purchase a kind with oils or preservatives added), was the key.

5 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 can of coconut milk, 14 fl. oz.
1 1/4 cup whole milk
2 vanilla beans
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
2 cups of cream heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 cooked pie crust

In a large heavy bottom sauce pan, melt 4 tablespoons of butter (set aside remaining tablespoon). Add flour. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add salt and coconut milk. Over low heat, stir with a whisk until thickened. Remove from heat. Split the vanilla beans, set one half aside for later use. Scrape the inside seeds into the coconut milk mixture and add the exterior beans. Mix and allow to sit for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, place the coconut into a large non stick skillet. Place over low heat and toast until it becomes fragrant and just barely golden, approximately 1 minute. Stir regularly and watch closely (the coconut will turn from perfectly golden to burnt in seconds). Remove the vanilla pods from the coconut mixture. Stir in 3/4 of the coconut (reserve the rest for topping) and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Place filling into pre-baked pie crust. Chill until cool. Whip the heavy cream until peaks form. Add the sugar and the interior contents of the previously set aside vanilla bean. Beat for an additional minute and top entire pie with cream. Sprinkle with reserved coconut and serve.

03 February 2010

Coffehouse Crawl

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, my blood naturally loves the cool damp air. Seattle was where our holiday festivities took place this year--I layered up and loved the respite from Bangkok’s humidity. The holidays are over and 2010’s newness has started to wear off. This blog post is about four weeks overdue, but the memory of the experience lives on.

On New Year’s Day, while other people snoozed off the champagne from the previous night’s celebrations, a group of us gathered for our second annual coffeehouse crawl. In celebration of my father’s birthday (which lands on January 1), we assemble a list of artisan coffee houses and visit them early in the morning, sipping and slurping shots along our merry way. By the end we’re all buzzing and gather for a lunch made up of a lot of starch to soak up the caffeine. At each coffee house, we order drinks, then huddle around the biggest table the shop owns and test our shots. We then rate, on a scale of one to five, four separate categories—taste, presentation, ambiance, service.

On our last tour, we ranked Seattle-based local roasters--meaning the shop had to roast their own beans. This year, we chose neighborhood cafes—stores that were getting all the buzz as a favorite local hangout serving great, great coffee. So without presenting an exact scoring tally, and keeping any snarky comments written on the scoring cards private, here are four wonderful shops that you might want to visit when in Seattle…

First stop: Fuel Coffee in the Wallingford neighborhood. Only a couple years on the scene, this coffee house managed to capture my heart. You just feel good holding a cup of Fuel coffee. Fuel has created an accessibly artistic space, with a cool retro vibe. You know, the kind of retro where you are not concerned about fleas jumping out of the cushions, but instead where you admire the bold graphic painting on an exposed brick wall and the artfully mismatched furnishings. And, they serve Hi-5 Pies… essentially pocket sized bundles of dough filled with throw back fillings—mac n cheese pie or s’more pie anyone?! Winner: Ambiance

Second stop: Trabant Coffee & Chai in the University District. Okay, I’ll admit it right away… I know this is a coffeehouse crawl, but I had heard so much about their chai that I had to order one. (critics: I tasted the coffee too!!!!) The chai is hands-down the best I have ever had. Order the spicy vegan… warm, frothy heaven in a cup (even if you’re not a vegan). And, the service at Trabant was spectacular. A knowledgeable, friendly, unpretentious barista shared our excitement at the store’s clover machine and served us expertly pulled shots. Winner: Favorite overall stop.

Third stop: Herkimer Coffee on University Avenue. Yes, it's sleek. Yes, it's well designed. But, the service during our visit left a bitter taste in our mouths. After I ordered a single shot of espresso for my father, the barista refused to make it stating that it was a short shot (exactly what I wanted to order!) and made a double shot. Her explanation: He won't even notice. The crummy Herkimer service continued to rain on our New Year's morning as we observed the barista's delicate* handling of the customers following our order. However, on a positive note, the espresso was served with a side of soda water to cleanse the palette and the doppio espresso con panna was everything one should be... hand whipped vanilla bean spiked cream dolloped beautifully atop two shots of inky espresso. Herkimer actually pulled through the lousy service to (barely) win our presentation award. Although, carry you're own soda water and I'm certain you could find a beautiful con panna, extraordinary service and beautiful presentation elsewhere. Winner: Presentation

Fourth stop: Victrola. Not officially included in this year’s coffeehouse crawl, but far to good to be missed by several members of our party. A favorite from our previous year's coffeehouse crawl, Victrola's expert roasting provides a beautiful cuppa. After several bags of beans were purchased and our veins were running at maximum caffeination, we headed home for a home cooked meal and further discussion of the morning's events. Winner: Place we love to return to over and over and over again.

*Oh, how I wish their was a universally recognized "Sarcasm Font".

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 77:
Oatmeal Dark Chocolate Chunk Cookies
In case your new year's resolution for healthy eating is still going strong, I've injected these with whole grains, antioxidant-rich dark chocolate and the ever healthful dried fruit. (Just omit the butter and sugar from your brain and enjoy!)

3/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped (save pod for another recipe)
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
3/4 cup raisins
2 large bar of dark chocolate (choose your favorite with 70 percent cacao content), chopped into generously sized pieces

Cream butter and sugars thoroughly (leave that mixer on for a few extra minutes and let it get extremely creamy!). Add egg and vanilla beans. Mix to incorporate. Add flour, salt and baking soda. Mix just until combined. Working by hand with a wooden spoon, add oats, raisins and chocolate. Form dough into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Place on parchment paper and wrap, securing the ends with twine. Place into freezer for 20 minutes. Remove and slice into 1/4 inch thick rounds. Place rounds on greased, or silicon baking mat lined, cookie sheets. Bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven for approximately 10 minutes or until the cookies are very lightly browned. Remove from oven. Allow to rest for 3 minutes and move to a cooling rack.