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!

 

 

 

 

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!

 

Chickpea Quinoa Salad with Avocado

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My fiancée and I recently started working out at a fitness boot camp that provided a clean eating meal plan. As we were getting tired of open-faced turkey avocado sandwiches and salads without dressing, I thought I would venture out and try different ways to eat light and healthy, while incorporating lots of yummy and fiberful veggies and enough protein to keep us energized and strong throughout the day. So I thought quinoa and chickpeas would be the perfect power couple for the job. In my fight against the summer heat, I shield myself with lots of sunscreen and eat lots of cold dishes that are full of hydrating veggies. I hope that you enjoy this summer salad as part of your backyard BBQ spread or as part of a healthy eating routine!

Cooking tips:

My problem with clean and healthy eating is that it can be extreme and bland. I don’t enjoy foods that contain zero salt and zero fat. They are incredibly unsatisfying and leave me with almost irresistible cravings for fat, salt, AND sugar (salted caramel ice cream anyone?). So to trick my mind into eating healthier, I often have to disguise my healthful foods and dress them up so that they feel more gourmet and not like I’m eating “grass,” in the words of Paula Dean. The solution: lots of fresh herbs, spices, moderate amounts of salt, and even, dare I say, some sugar and fat! Asian cuisine uses a balance of these flavors and it seems to satisfy palates enough so that dessert is not needed on day-to-day basis. Fruit after a meal usually satisfies any lingering sweet tooth.

This recipes uses Persian cucumbers, which are especially crispy and delicious. One quick tip when making a cucumber dish is to remove the fleshy seeded part in the middle to prevent excess fluid from entering your dish. The crunchy outer flesh is the more enjoyable part of the cucumber in my opinion. So I usually just  remove the seeds and snack on the middle parts or use them as skin food for my face. =)

Recipe
Serves 10-12
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Marinade time: 2 hours-overnight

1 cup dry quinoa
2 cups water
2 red bell peppers, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 shallot, finely diced
1 bunch of flat leaf parsley
5 Persian cucumbers, diced
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 tsp Goya Adobo all-purpose seasoning
pepper to taste
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp Modena white vinegar
6 small avocados (add upon serving)

Directions

Add quinoa and water into a pot and bring to a boil, then reduce to medium low heat. Allow to cook for ~20 minutes until quinoa is translucent and its spirals begin to separate from the grain. Set aside to cool after it is done.

In the meantime, finely dice bell pepper, onion, shallot, and parsley and mix together.

When cutting cucumbers, slice in half length-wise and remove seedy flesh in the middle. Save seedy flesh for skincare or for separate snacking.

Mix chopped up vegetables with lime juice, vinegar, and Goya seasoning. When juicing the lime, try to get some of the oils from the skin out-it intensifies the lemon flavor.

Add garbanzo beans and cooled quinoa and mix well with diced vegetables. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.

Let it sit for at least 2 hours. For best results, let sit overnight.

Serve with fresh avocado. Do not pre-mix avocado into the salad as it will brown.

 

 

Shrimp Ceviche/Black Bean Salsa

IMG_7754Growing up in a primarily Mexican-American neighborhood, I had easy access to authentic Mexican food-moist tamales, mouthwatering sopes, satisfying but simple tacos, and oh my goodness, the ceviche! I realize that authentic ceviche involves cooking raw seafood in citrus (usually lemon or lime juice) for many hours. However, I had to cater my ceviche to an Asian audience-namely, my family members. The Chinese palate leaves little room for raw anything, much less raw meat. Coming from a time and place when cleanliness concerns and food-borne infections could mean life or death, I understand my parents’ and grandparents’ concern when I told them how I had made my first batch of ceviche. So, I have modified my shrimp ceviche recipe to minimize the possibility of GI issues from having consumed undercooked meat. I realize that pre-boiling shrimp is not the authentic approach to making ceviche, but it is what gives my loved ones and me peace of mind when we plunge our tostadas into the juicy satisfying coolness of a fresh batch of ceviche.

For those who do not eat seafood, I have also made a black bean version of this dish, which has also been a crowd pleaser. In fact, that is one of the reasons that I created this food blog. After bringing the black bean salsa, I had several people ask me for the recipe, which prompted the thought: Wouldn’t it be nice if I actually had recipes in print that I can refer people to when they want to know how I made something? Now here we are. I finally have a place to direct people to for my recipes. I’m not trying to get instafamous or youtube famous (although that would be so lovely). I just want to share my food, cooking, and thoughts about food with others.

Anyway, coming back from that personal aside, shrimp can get expensive, so substituting black bean for the seafood makes this a great dish for potlucks, entertaining, or good healthy plant-based eating. The base of both these dishes is the same- a solid pico de gallo, comprised of tomato, onion, cilantro, chili pepper, and lemon/lime juice. So once you master the perfect umami balance that characterizes pico de gallo, you can use this as a base with a wide range of ingredients to create equally tantalizing concoctions.

Cooking tips:

Always keep in mind the chip you are serving with any salsa. If you have a very salty chip, go easy on the salt with your salsa. Mexican food is all about that perfect umami balance of salt, sour and spicy.

I made my own tostadas because they are healthier than the deep-fried kind. With tostadas, I’ve learned one thing: they are extremists when it comes to oil. Either use a lot of oil to fry them or don’t use any at all. Anything in between these extremes and you’ll get a soggy chewy mess. I opt for the no oil option for health reasons. And honestly, I don’t even really notice the difference between fried and baked tostada when you’ve got a delicious nest of ceviche or black bean salsa resting on it.

For any chunky salsa recipe, including pico de gallo, that I make, I always squeeze the chopped up ingredients with my hands. In my not-so-scientific opinion, it releases the juices from the respective veggies, allows them to swim with the juices of others, and then absorb the flavors of all the other kids in the pool. Try it out and see if you notice a difference!

Recipe
Serves 6
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Marinade time: 3 hours-overnight

Ceviche/Black Bean Salsa
1 lb shrimp or 1 can black beans
2 ears fresh corn or 2 cups of frozen corn (only add if making black bean salsa)
5 large roma or any juicy ripe tomato
1 bunch of cilantro
1/2 onion, chopped
6 small avocados
3-5 pickled Serrano chiles
optional: 1-2 fresh jalapenos or Serrano chiles
a few generous pinches of salt, to taste
juice of 1 lemon and 2 limes

Tostadas
Corn tortillas

Directions
Peel and devein shrimp. Drop into boiling water and allow to boil for 3-5 minutes until just cooked through. Rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process and chop into bite sized pieces. (or Rinse black beans and allow to drain for 1-2 minutes.)

Finely dice tomatoes, onion, chiles, and cilantro and mix together. Add lemon juice and salt. When juicing lemon try to get some of the oils from the skin out-it intensifies the lemon flavor.

(Add in corn if you are making the black bean salsa.)

Wear plastic cooking gloves. Using your hands, squeeze the juices of the mixed chopped vegetables and continue to mix for approximately 2-3 minutes. This allows the flavors of the salsa ingredients to combine. Add in shrimp and continue squeezing and combining. (If you are making the black bean salsa, simply incorporate black beans to the salsa and let sit. Do not squeeze into the pico de gallo mix as that will smash the beans.)

Let it sit for at least 3 hours. For best results, let sit overnight.

For tostadas, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and place tortillas in a single layer onto a baking sheet. Allow to bake 15-20 minutes, rotating at least once to prevent burning. Take tostadas out when they are golden brown.

Serve with fresh avocado. Do not pre-mix avocado into the salsa as it will brown.