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!

 

Chicken Breasts in Creamy Marsala Wine Sauce and Cremini Mushrooms

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As I continue on my fat loss journey, I’ve been challenged to find filling and fulfilling delicious foods that are not packed with fat and carbs. I’ve grown up with a certain expectation at every meal: a big hunk of meat, a big pile of starch (rice, potato, or pasta), and a small bunch of veggies. Needless to say, changing to a low-grain diet can be challenging because you often feel dissatisfied and that something is lacking. Moreover, fit meals often showcase boiled and bland chicken and fish. I’m sorry- I was born a food lover and I refuse to limit myself to these unappetizing options. If I subsisted on these options, I would be either miserable or cheating on my diet all the time. So, in the spirit of sustainable lifestyle changes to my eating, I have accepted that I cannot have a grain with every meal and have the body that I want. Thanks a lot, powers that be! But just because I cannot pile my plate full of delicious Jasmine rice and fluffy mashed potatoes during every meal does not mean that I cannot enjoy the foods that WILL nourish my body and keep it lean. And I fully intend to continue enjoying my meals. So I’ve had to be a bit creative in how I prepare my food to keep it interesting and appetizing. Otherwise, I’ll be on my way to an In-n-Out drive through faster than you can say “screw it!”

Chicken breast is a staple of any American household, and it is the usual suspect when it comes to protein sources for people trying to stay fit. Unfortunately, due to its low fat content, it is easily overcooked, leaving it rubbery and unpalatable. The solutions? Don’t overcook it and add a sauce! Usually cream sauces are full of saturated fat. I opted to use Laughing Cow cheese as a base for this sauce, a trick I learned from The Hungry Girl. That woman is a genius. I also used a bit of water mixed with flour as a thickening agent so that my sauce turned out velvety and rich.

Cooking Tips

-Low on time? Slice your chicken breast thinly to ensure even and fast cooking.

-substitute laughing cow cheese as the base of heavy cream-based sauces; add flour + water mixture to thicken

-when making any meat dish with a sauce, make sure to barely undercook the meat when you are searing. The meat can finish cooking in the sauce. If you cook thoroughly during searing and then cook in the sauce, you will have an overcooked rubbery piece of meat.

-when in doubt, do not overcrowd the pan when searing anything. You will end up with a steamy mess instead of the golden brown crust you are trying to achieve. Also, do NOT flip/turn the meat until you are sure the golden brown crust has formed. This will also leave you with steamed instead of seared food (Same thing applies when you are going to eat out at an AYCE Korean BBQ place. Just sayin….)

 

Recipe
Servings: 4-6
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes

 

Ingredients
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, sliced into medallions
2 packages cremini (baby Portobello) mushrooms
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp garlic salt
1 tbsp black pepper
1 cup Marsala wine
2 wedges of original Laughing Cow cheese
1 cup grated Parmigianno Reggiano
1 tbsp flour
2 tbsp water
1 bunch chopped parsley

Season chicken breast slices with garlic salt and pepper. Let sit for about 10 minutes while you prep (chop) other ingredients.

Heat a skillet on high heat and add olive oil. Sear chicken breast pieces and place onto a plate when they are done searing.

Using the same pan, add butter, garlic, and shallot along with sliced cremini mushrooms. Sauté until mushrooms have become golden brown. Add Marsala wine to de-glaze pan. Cook for 1-2 minutes.

Add in seared chicken to the pan along with mushroom mixture. Add Laughing Cow wedges, and Parmigianno Reggiano. Turn heat to medium and allow sauce to reduce.

Mix flour with cold water thoroughly until all lumps have dissolved. Add flour water mixture to the chicken and continue cooking until the sauce has thickened. Taste for seasoning and add salt, pepper, red pepper flake, and Parmigianno Reggiano to taste.

Lastly, top with generous amounts of chopped parsley and serve. Enjoy!

Creamy Pasta with Chicken, Tomato, and Spinach

IMG_7727For the majority of my meals, I am watching my refined carbohydrates and trying to reduce starches in my diet. I have come a long way in the realm of healthy eating and weight management-an achievement of which I am incredibly proud. But, every once in a while, I completely give in to my love of pasta. Soaking in tomato sauce, kissed by basil, swimming in broth, how I love pasta. Let me count the ways. I can’t help it-I just love food in all shapes and forms. And pasta, whether dressed up in a bow tie, slenderized in fettuccine, or rolled thinly and svelte as papperdelle, never disappoints. And the cherry on top? The delicious sauce that comes as its partner! Whenever I eat pasta at restaurants, I always indulge in a nice creamy sauce because I usually limit myself to tomato-based sauces when I cook at home. However, some foods are made to nourish the body and some have been designed to nourish the soul.

Today, I was inspired to make this dish because I needed to nourish the body and soul of my brother-in-law. My sister recently gave birth to her first child- my niece Jamie. I am so thrilled to finally be an auntie! She is absolutely adorable and I can’t wait to see what kind of person she becomes. We all know it takes a village to raise a child. So I’ve begun delivering meals for my brother-in-law because my sister has been occupied with caring for her new bundle of joy. I asked myself: what would I want to eat if I were completely exhausted an in need of a pick-me-up? Pasta was the first thing that came to mind.

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Cooking Tips

When cooking pieces of chicken breast in a sauce, it is important to be strategic about how big the chicken breast pieces will be. Cut them too small and the chicken will become dry after cooking for a short amount of time. If they are too large and thick, the cooking process may render the outside layers overcooked while the inside remains undercooked. If you are cooking a whole chicken breast, consider the butterfly technique and using a meat mallet or a large knife to flatten thickness. This will cut down on cooking time and create evenness in the cooking process of the chicken.

Red pepper flake and shallots may be difficult to pinpoint and isolate in an Italian dish, but when they are missing, it is similar to the foundation being cracked in a structure. Unstable and shaky, the pasta dish cannot stand without the fundamental building blocks of flavor.

If you like pasta to be “al dente”, purposely undercook the pasta by a minute or two in boiling water. When the pasta is added to your sauce, you can cook it to its desired consistency and texture. Please, please, please never drain pasta and then serve after topping it with sauce! The pasta needs to be cooked in the sauce to create a complete pasta dish-it allows the pasta to soak up and stick to the sauce.

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Servings: 4-6
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients
½ package dried penne
½ package bacon or pancetta, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 diced shallot
2 chicken breasts
1 tsp garlic salt, or to taste
pinch of red pepper flake, to taste
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tsp dried basil
¼ c sherry wine
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 cup grated Parmigianno Reggiano
1 bunch spinach
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 bunch basil

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Boil pasta according to package directions (approximately 7-10 minutes).

While pasta is cooking, sauté pancetta in large skillet. Heat skillet on medium high and place pancetta in the pan. When the bacon begins to crisp up showing a nice golden brown color, add onion and garlic. Saute for another 2-3 minutes, then set aside.

Thinly slice chicken breast into ¼ inch thick pieces. Season with garlic salt, red pepper flake, black pepper, dried basil. Set aside for 10 minutes to marinate. When chicken has finished marinating, heat large skillet and drizzle with oil. Sear chicken until both sides are golden brown (approximately 3-5 minutes). Then add pancetta, garlic, and shallot mixture.

Add wine and heavy whipping cream, and Parmiggiano Reggiano into the chicken. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce thickens.

Drain the pasta and add into chicken and cream sauce. Add a splash of pasta water to adjust consistency of the pasta sauce. When the pasta sauce has thickened to desired consistency, add spinach and tomato. Allow to cook for 2-3 minutes.

Turn off the fire and add in fresh basil. Adjust seasoning as needed: add garlic salt, red pepper flake, Parmiggiano Reggiano, and black pepper to taste.