Seafood Paella

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Paella is a wholesome and soulful meal that is meant for sharing. It transforms relatively humble ingredients into a deliciously complex and pleasing dining experience. While I love traditional Valencia-style seafood paella and never hesitate to order it at Spanish tapas restaurants, I find myself hard-pressed for time trying to juggle work, fitness, chores, taking care of Benji (my senior dog), spending quality time with my loved ones, meal prepping, and finding calm and tranquility in my day. Wow, it feels so much more overwhelming now that I’ve listed my responsibilities so exhaustively. And I’m sure the average person is struggling with similar challenges of having too much to do in the day and simply not having enough time and energy. This is why I am a fan of simple and hands-off cooking techniques. You remember the “set it and forget it” slogan from Ronco’s Showtime rotisserie machine? Maybe I just dated myself…Anyhow, I often use non-fussy cooking methods that will provide quick returns or at least require less of my attention and time. This is why I am a huge fan of the slow cooker and one-pot meals. Searing and boiling food, and then allowing it cook itself with minimal monitoring? Sign me up! So, I made a variation of seafood paella that veers away from tradition. I cover my rice with a lid to allow it to steam rather than babysitting it for an hour, carefully ladling broth in and massaging the rice. As much as I would love to do that, I am just pressed for time. I guess this recipe is more of an “arroz con mariscos” because other Latin-American countries also use the lidded pot for its steaming properties rather than the traditional paella cooking method

I made this for my family during one of our weekly Wednesday night dinner’s at my dad’s house. My sister has been having a stressful time in school, and I wanted to show my support in one of the best ways I know how: by nourishing her body and soul. I was really shocked when my father actually made positive comments about my dish. He comes from a culinary background as a dim sum chef, and he also has this strange idea in his head that Chinese and Vietnamese foods are the only ones worth eating. Yes, I realize that his is a very narrow-minded approach to food than most, and I most heartily disagree, but that’s my father for you.  I have learned to accept it, as you must do with most circumstances in life that are out of your hands. I have also learned to accept that he will likely never approve of anything that I make or think that it is tasty. It will never be authentically Chinese enough or Vietnamese enough. Which was why I was really shocked at his words “Wow, it looks good!” when I placed the finished paella on the dinner table. So there is your food miracle for the day. =P I hope that this dish brings some positive moments with you and your loved ones as it did with mine.

Cooking Tips

When in doubt, always have your fire lower rather than higher when you are cooking any potted rice dish with the lid closed. It is better to have to cook your dish longer than to have burnt rice. No one likes that. I prefer to cook my paella on medium low heat.

When cooking rice, I prefer to put less water than to put too much water because I hate mushy rice. Then, I will slowly add more liquid toward the end of cooking if the rice does not become soft to the desired texture of chewiness. Usually when cooking white rice, the ratio of liquid to rice should be 1:1.

Recipe
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Serves 6-8 people
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 heads shallots, minced
pinch of salt
½ lb chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch chunks
½ sweet onion, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
½ Kielbasa or any spicy cooked sausage
3 cups Arborio rice, washed and drained
½ cup dry white wine
1 can crushed tomatoes
½ quart of chicken broth
1 tbsp seasoned salt, or to taste (Trader Joe’s seasoned salt or Goya seasoning)
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp saffron
½ lb large shrimp, deveined and peeled
½ lb calamari, sliced
1 green onion, sliced
lemon wedges for squeezing
Heat a large and deep skillet/pan on high heat. Add in oil, and fry garlic and shallots for 2-3 minutes, or until soft. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper and add to the frying pan. Allow to brown.

Remove chicken from the pan. Add in more olive oil and stir fry onion and bell pepper on medium high heat for 2-3 minutes.

Add chicken back into the pan, along with Kielbasa, and stir fry together with vegetables on high heat for 1-2 minutes. Season to taste with seasoned salt. Add rice to the pan to stir fry together with meat and vegetables.

Add in wine, crushed tomatoes, and chicken broth. Season to taste with seasoning salt, paprika, and saffron. Mix rice thoroughly with liquids and then turn heat on medium low.

Allow rice to simmer on medium low heat for 20-30 minutes, depending on your stove and how often you peak at the rice. When most of the liquid has evaporated, check rice for doneness. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Add chicken broth or water as needed.

When your rice is just “al dente” mix calamari into the paella and place shrimp on top of paella and place the lid back on. Allow to steam and finish cooking until rice reaches desired level of doneness and most liquid has evaporated (~5 minutes).

Remove from heat, and serve with lots of green onion and lemon wedges on top.

Enjoy with your loved ones!

 

Vietnamese Braised Catfish (Ca Kho To)

IMG_0530.JPGFull disclosure: I actually used to hate catfish because of its muddy/earthen flavor. But throughout the years, I’ve learned to appreciate this meaty bottom-feeding fish that at first looks quite intimidating with its dragon-like whiskers. Growing up, my aunt would make delicious Vietnamese food for us for Sunday dinners. It was akin to the Sunday roast dinner that many American families have, but rather than a huge roast, we would have specialty dishes that required lots of time and preparation. I have lost count of how many times I’ve watched my aunt cooking this dish.

With the widespread popularity of pho and eggrolls being the ambassador foods of Vietnamese cuisine, many equally delicious Vietnamese dishes have been hidden in their shadow. My family actually never made pho at home because of how time and labor intensive it is. Ca kho to, however, is relatively easy and quick to make and packs such a punch of flavor. There are recipes that utilize a pre-made caramel sauce. I am going to challenge my readers to make their own caramel. It is such an easy and cheap product to make; yet its ready-made versions are often overpriced at grocery stores. And if I have any pet peeve it’s got to be overpaying for something that is not all that difficult to make myself. So, have a little faith in yourself, and give caramel a try! Once you master this skill, you can make caramel sauces for desserts, caramel candies, and even caramel sugar art if you are extra ambitious.

Cooking Tips:

Use fresh coconut water from a young coconut if possible (water from a brown coconut is no good). This will imbue your fish with the most intense and delightful coconut flavor.

I love getting my fish at the Asian grocery store because they offer fish cleaning and cutting services, which saves me lots of time and unnecessary mess in my kitchen. Have your butcher cut the catfish into steaks, as boneless filets will easily fall apart in the braising process.

Recipe
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

1 tbsp peanut oil
1 lb catfish steaks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh coconut water
1 large shallot, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup oyster sauce
1/4 cup water
1 red jalapeno, sliced
green onion, chopped

Place sugar into a saucepan on medium-high heat. Allow sugar to melt. Mix sugar crystals with melted sugar to ensure an even caramel. Continue heating until melted sugar becomes a light caramel brown color. At this point, add coconut water. Mix well and continue boiling on medium heat until the sauce reduces to the point where it can coat the back of a wooden spoon (~20 minutes)

Meanwhile, heat a deep frying pan on high. Drizzle with oil and sear catfish steaks on medium high heat until golden brown (3-5 minutes each side). Remove fish from pan and add in garlic, shallot, and red jalapeno into frying pan. Allow to sauté for 3-5 minutes until shallot softens.

Add seared catfish back into the pan and add fish sauce, oyster sauce, and a splash of water. Once the coconut caramel has thickened, add it into the catfish and mix well with the sauce. Allow catfish to braise in the sauce on medium low heat until sauce thickens and each side of the catfish has absorbed a thin coating of the sauce (~10 minutes). Flip catfish once one side has taken on a nice caramel color and allow the other side to braise in the sauce.

Adjust seasonings to taste: by adding in a splash of water, oyster sauce, fish sauce, or sugar.

Garnish with green onion and serve with white rice. 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!