Lion’s Head Soup (pork meatball and Napa Cabbage Soup)

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Note: No lions were harmed in the preparation of this food blog post.

Traditional Chinese dinners always involve some kind of broth-based soup that has been simmering for hours to extract nature’s goodness from yummy veggies. This soup is usually the embodiment of love from a hardworking mother, father, or grandparent and sets the tone for the meal to follow. However, as a working professional, it is really difficult to devote that amount of time to make a soup when you’ve got other dishes to prepare as well. There are times I wish I were living with my family so that I can get spoiled with delicious soup. Stubborn as I am, I’m determined to live independently, so I’ve begun experimenting with soups that are nourishing, filling, and most importantly, less time consuming.

Lion’s head soup is a traditional Chinese soup. I’ve kept my version of this traditional soup relatively simple and healthy. This is a wonderful addition to a meal, especially in the fall and winter, when you want a bowl of something hot and steamy to warm your bones. Think of it as a low-carb deconstructed wonton/dumpling soup. This lion’s head meatball is very similar to the fillings of delicious pot stickers and wontons and can be used as a foundation for your next wonton/pot sticker party.

 

Cooking notes/tips:

Chinese-style meatballs are distinct in that they have a very springy and bouncy texture, achieved by working the meat and developing the gluten from the corn starch that has been added. What we are looking for in this meatball is not a loose, soft texture. Rather, we want these meatballs to be firm so that they do not fall apart as they cook in the soup.

You can easily turn this into a wonton soup by stuffing wonton skins with the meatball mixture rather than cooking the meatballs directly in the broth. To do this, you would need to use another pot of boiling water and cook the wontons separately in this pot, strain, and then serving with the broth at the end. In making Chinese noodle soup, it is always recommended to boil noodles and dumplings in a separate pot of water rather than in the pot of broth. This keeps the broth from thickening as a result of the starch from the noodle.

This next tip may sound more like a rant. Apologies ahead of time, but this is something that needs to change in American versions of Chinese/Asian cooking. Many Americanized versions of Asian recipes call for sesame oil in everything, but I feel that this addition is often gratuitous, and a misuse of a popularized Asian ingredient. In other words, it seems that recipes use sesame oil just because it is a well-known Asian ingredient and people want a surefire way to make their food bear a hallmark Asian flavor. Sesame oil has a potent earthy flavor that can overpower a dish when added without forethought. In other words, it can make your food taste like dirt. In Chinese cooking, sesame oil is only used in specific dishes, not in everything that is prepared. That said, it is my opinion that sesame oil should only be used in specific dishes, paired with specific ingredients. Examples of appropriate uses of sesame oil: a small drop in rice congee,  soy sauce & sugar sauce mixes for braising chicken (e.g., 3 cups chicken), marinating fried tofu, and marinating sweet/savory cucumber pickles. Superfluous/unnecessary uses of sesame oil: stir-fries, chow mien, fried rice. Vietnamese dishes rarely use sesame oil. If you find one with this ingredient, you might question its authenticity. Korean cooking, on the other hand, uses sesame oil heavily.

Serves: 6-8
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes

Broth
1 lb pork neck bones
2 tbsp fish sauce or 1-2 tsp salt to taste
4 carrots, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 cups chopped napa cabbage

Lion’s Head Meatballs
1 lb ground pork
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
pinch of salt, to taste
pinch of white or black pepper
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch green onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp corn starch

Directions

Heat a large pot with enough water to cover the pork neck bones. Place bones inside water and boil until meat becomes brown and begins to produce brownish foam ~7-10 minutes. Discard liquid and rinse pork bones. Fill with 2 quarts cold water and bring to a boil. Add in carrots once water begins to boil and turn fire to medium low.

While waiting for water to boil, prepare lion’s head meatballs. Place ground pork, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, salt, pepper, sugar, green onion, and corn starch into a large mixing bowl. Use hands to mix together all ingredients for meatballs. Knead meatballs for 5 minutes, lifting the mixture and using force to toss it back into the mixing bowl. Repeat at least 5 times until mixture begins to stick together. Set aside.

Check broth. Once carrots have softened, begin forming meat mixture into meatballs ~2 inches in diameter. Turn heat on high. Drop meatballs into the soup and allow to cook until their color turns from pink to light brown.

Once meatballs turn light brown, add in Napa cabbage, stirring gently to submerge into the broth. Cook for another 5 minutes or until cabbage has softened. Taste for seasoning and add salt, fish sauce, or sugar to taste.

Spoon into individual bowls and garnish with fresh green onion. If you would like, add a small drop of sesame oil to the broth and serve.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Kung Pao Tofu

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It is not lost on me that I have a blog called “Wok with Me,” yet I have hardly posted any recipes featuring the use of a wok. Cooking with a traditional wok is quite the undertaking because it requires intensely hot and high flame, as well as a space with strong ventilation for the copious amounts of smoke produced from cooking. When I was growing up, my family cooked out of a shed that they had erected to model the way of life in the countryside of Vietnam. I remember staring through the screen door in wonder and awe as my grandpa and mom would brave the cold/heat to cook dinner for us. On more than one occasion, the makeshift shack of plywood and cardboard actually caught fire and we were afraid that our house would also burn down with it.

As a youngster, my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles would dissuade me from entering the kitchen. “Go and study, “ they would say. Although this was discouraging for me as a child, I now understand that their words and actions embodied sacrifice and love. In their experience, those who worked in the restaurant business had cruelly laborious lives. It was physically demanding to stand in a hot kitchen all day and the compensation was barely enough to sustain a living. So they would undertake the task of preparing meals for me to save me the trouble and physical discomfort. Still, I secretly dreamt of opening up my own restaurant someday while playing my role as a good student. Now that I have finished school, I find that family members still wish to protect me from the physical labor of being in the kitchen. Little do they know that I want to learn their recipes so that I can preserve our family’s culture and history and that I find an inexplicable joy in the simple and almost primal task of preparing my own food.

In a way, every dish I make is a nod to the experiences and people that have shaped who I am. I feel a magical connection to my ancestors and to my roots when I prepare dishes that have been handed down from generation to generation. What’s more, I feel a sense of communion with those from other cultures when I have the pleasure of sampling and cooking their foods.

Kung pao tofu is a very popularized Chinese-American dish that is often served as take-out. Honestly, I’m not sure if it is authentic Chinese cuisine or not as many fusions and blends have occurred from the meeting and mixing of cultures. I would be lying if I said that my family prepared this for me growing up. But the flavors carried by this dish are very familiar to me and I hope that you will enjoy them as well.

 

Cooking notes/tips:

An essential nuance in cooking with a wok is timing and knowing which ingredients to stir fry first, which to stir-fry together, and which must be separately stir-fried and then combined later on with the sauce. Most Chinese stir fried veggie dishes start off with the browning of garlic in oil before adding the other ingredients. The problem is that the garlic will quickly burn if it is not given some liquid. To prevent burning of garlic, I usually add a splash of water to my stir-fry after adding the vegetables. Traditional Chinese cooking utilizes LOADS of oil to prevent garlic from burning, but that is a rather unhealthy approach, so I prefer my splash of water.

In stir-fries involving meat and veggies, I almost always stir-fry the meat first, remove it from the pan, and then stir fry the veggies separately. This allows proper cooking of each ingredient, as cooking them all at once will create a watery mess. They are later combined and stir-fried with the sauce, which is oftentimes soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, fermented bean sauce.

Stir-fried vegetables should always retain some level of crunch after cooking. When in doubt, I sometimes slightly undercook my veggies. That way, the residual heat will do the rest of the softening of the veggies. For people who follow a meal prep life, undercooking the veggies is a good strategy to give your veggies the perfect texture after re-heating. This is especially true for broccoli and bok choy.

Dealing with tofu can be tricky depending on its texture. I always go with firm tofu when stir-frying. Always pan-fry your tofu first: this helps to develop flavor and creates a nice crisp exterior. Skipping this step will leave you with a watery mess.

 

Ingredients
½ cup peanuts, toasted
1 tbsp oil
1 block tofu, sliced into ½ inch thick rectangles
1 tbsp oil
½ bell pepper, sliced
¼ onion, sliced
1 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
handful of dried red chiles
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch green onion, chopped into 1-inch pieces

Directions

Turn on oven to 300 degrees F and toast peanuts for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Meanwhile, prepare tofu.

Use paper towels to absorb excess moisture on the surfaces of the tofu pieces. Heat a skillet on medium high heat and add oil. When oil becomes shimmery, add in tofu and allow to sit in pan for 5-7 minutes until golden brown. DO NOT move the tofu until the crust has formed. Flip and repeat steps until both sides are golden brown. Set aside.

In a separate wok or pan, turn on heat to medium high and add oil. When oil becomes shimmery, add bell pepper and onion. Stir-fry for 1-2 minutes until slightly softened. Remove from wok and set aside.

Turn on a clean wok to high heat and add oil, chilies, and garlic. Sauté until garlic becomes slightly brown, and then add tofu and vegetables. Stir-fry for 1 minute to allow flavors to combine. Then add oyster sauce and sugar. Lastly, add in green onion and toasted peanuts. Serve immediately.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Fusion Salmon Escovitch: Broiled Salmon with Mango Pineapple Salsa

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This past Saturday night my friend hosted a dinner party. We sauntered into his apartment fully expecting to be enveloped by the warm blanket of aromas from the diner that our host prepared for us. Little did we know….we were in for a tumultuous ride! Our hosts greeted us with tropical mojitos. Looking back, maybe this was their strategy to anesthetize the shock that they were about to deliver to the 8 guests who had arrived with empty stomachs: they were issuing a Chopped challenge: 4 couples. $40 each. No time limit. 4 entrée dishes. 1 small apartment kitchen with 4 burners. My heart began to palpitate and then burst into a full pound! I love competitions, but they make me feel like I am having a panic attack!

Despite the stress of competing, I had a lovely time. I was so impressed by the incredible skill and thought that went into each dish. Pictures posted below. This dinner took us on a tour of the world: Vietnam, Japan, Britain, Morocco, Thailand, and Jamaica. At the end of the night, our bellies were full, our appetites appeased, and our bodies and minds exhausted from the adrenaline rush of this fierce but fun competition. I loved each and every dish: avocado green curry with chicken, fish tempura spring rolls with chili ponzu dipping sauce, broiled herbed chicken with cous cous and balsamic onion glaze.

It was a wonderful reminder of what unites human beings: the need for sustenance and the desire to provide for those that we love. This simple human universal bonds us all and reminds me that we are more alike than different as a race and species.

Without further ado, please find posted my recipe for fusion fish escovitch with cauliflower potato puree. I will ask my fellow competitors for their recipes so that I may post and share their creations with you.

Cooking tips:

For salmon skin lovers, the way to ensure a crispy skin involves two critical components: oil and heat. As with other browning of meats, the trick is to leave the fish alone once you place it on the hot skillet skin side down. Only flip once you suspect that the skin has crisped up. Placing it in the broiler will allow the skin to crisp, the flesh to cook, all without over-cooking and over-drying your salmon.

For those who are shy of fish sauce, feel free to omit. This dish would be just as delicious without. Although, I personally love the umami richness that fish sauce lends to the dish.

 

Recipe

Mango Pineapple Salsa
½ can pineapple, diced
¼ cup pineapple liquid
2 mangoes, diced
3 roma tomatoes, diced
1 shallot, diced
½ bunch of cilantro, minced
2 tbsp sambal, or chili garlic paste
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp fish sauce/1 tsp salt

Directions

Prepare salsa by dicing and mixing ingredients together. Season to taste. Set aside and chill.

Cauliflower potato puree

1 head cauliflower
3 white potatoes, diced and peeled
1 head garlic, sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt or to taste

Directions

Boil 2 large pots of water. Cut cauliflower into smaller florets. Add in potatoes to one pot of boiling water and cauliflower to the other pot as they have different cooking times. Boil until potatoes are soft ~20-30 minutes. Boil until cauliflower is soft ~15-20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

While the vegetables are boiling, heat a pan on medium heat and place in olive oil. Add in sliced garlic and sauté until browned ~5-7 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside prepared garlic & olive oil.

Place cauliflower into a blender and puree until just smooth. Do not over-puree as it will leave a watery consistency.

Use a potato ricer to mash potatoes.

Add pureed cauliflower to mashed potatoes and add in garlic olive oil and salt to taste.

Salmon

2 lb salmon fillets
½ c brown sugar
4 tbsp barbecue rub (1 tbsp cayenne pepper, 1 tbsp black pepper, 2 tsp salt, 1 tbsp garlic powder)
1 tbsp chipotle powder
1 tbsp garlic salt
1 tbsp olive oil

Directions

Preheat oven to broil setting or highest temperature setting.

Wipe salmon with paper towels until the fillets are dry. Place rub on salmon and allow to sit.

Heat skillet on high heat and add olive oil. When oil is hot and shimmery, place salmon fillets on skillet skin side down and sear on high for 3-5 minutes, or until skin is crispy. Leave space in between fillets and sear in batches. Do not crowd the pan. When skin is crispy, use a spatula to place the fish on an oiled baking sheet, skin side up.

Place salmon inside the oven to broil, with salmon skin directly beneath the heat source/flame. Broil 7-10 minutes, depending on thickness and size of the salmon, or until skin is crispy and golden brown.

Place salmon fillet on top of a bed of pureed cauliflower potatoes and top with generous scoop of mango pineapple salsa and serve immediately.
Enjoy!

 

Realistic Pita Pizzas

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Wow, I can’t believe it has been over a month since I last posted. Life has felt like a whirlwind this past month. Starting a new job, adjusting to my role, and finding a way to take care of my patients while also finding time to care for myself and those that I love, including my wonderful dog son Benji and my fiance.

Thus, for Thanksgiving this year, I had to tackle some smaller and more time-friendly dishes. Although it would have been lovely to post a lavish Thanksgiving spread, I had to be realistic. As luck would have it, I caught a cold yesterday, right as I was entering into 4 days of time off from work and Thanksgiving festivities. But, as I’ve learned from the patients that I care for, we have to roll with life’s punches. Many things in life are out of our control and many situations are not easily changed just because we will them to change. So, in sitting with acceptance of everything- the fact that I have not yet gained mastery of my new work role, the fact that I came down with a cold at the most inconvenient of times, the fact that my lower and upper back have now decided to act up-I had to recognize that I will not be able to pour my heart out into elaborate and traditional Thanksgiving dishes that would razzle dazzle.

Instead, I’ve prepared something that I had to cook in my real life out of a desperate attempt to provide delicious food to my loved ones without casting me over the edge of exhaustion and overwork. I hope that this pita pizza will also help you out when you find yourself reeling from the multitude of responsibilities that have fallen upon your lap and dinner/lunch still needs to be made. This recipe is all about “making it work” and doing just enough to get by. It is a compromise because life is all about making little sacrifices here and there to make room for other things that are important in our lives. Although cooking and sharing cooking tips is a really important part of my life, it has had to take a backseat for the past month and half due to my other roles and responsibilities. But, the most important thing is that I want to keep posting. I want to continue expressing myself and sharing in this way, so I’ve found a way to get back to it. Just in a smaller capacity than I had originally planned. That is how I create balance in my life and I have to accept that some things will not be as perfect as I wish them to be.

Servings: 4
Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients
4 pita pockets
1 can tomato sauce
1 tsp olive oil
2 Italian hot sausages
1/4 cup onion, sliced
1 sprig green onion, chopped
1 cup whole milk mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup whole milk ricotta cheese

Directions

Heat skillet on medium high and place in sausage. Cook until browned, breaking up sausage into little pieces. Remove when cooked. In the same pan, add in sliced onion. Cook on medium-low heat until caramelized and golden brown. Stir occasionally for even cooking.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit

Assemble pizza: spread sauce onto pita and place cooked sausage, caramelized onion, and green onion. Top with generous layer of mozzarella cheese and evenly drop dollops of ricotta cheese on top.

Bake in oven for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown. Depending your oven, the underside may become brown first. To brown the top, simply turn on your broiler for about 30 seconds – 1 minute and watch carefully until the top has browned. Otherwise, the pizza will burn.

Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving everyone!