Monday, December 28, 2009

Back Bakin'

Banana-Carob Bran Muffins

It's been about five years since I last baked, and it's the first time in nearly five years that I actually have a kitchen that I love to work in. It makes such a world of difference, as does having some holiday time to dig out those favourite recipes of old, and reacquaint with nearly forgotten flavours. I have to admit that getting back to baking wasn't that successful a start. After an attempt at making "healthy alternative" shortbread cookies with whole wheat flour, I was rather dejected. I had planned to give these to my students as a Christmas treat, but after my guy took one bite, he looked at me solemnly and said, "You might want to consider not giving these to your students. " I had to agree. These things - brown, hard and dry - could not be considered cookies. Oh sad truth. I had even creatively (or so I thought) sprinkled them with crushed candy cane, which unfortunately also worked against me when they melted onto the things in hardened puddles of greenish-red goo.

Second attempt on the same night went surprisingly well, considering I had already been at it for over two hours and tired. (And I thought holiday baking was supposed to be fun.) Since I had already planned to make muffins that same evening, and by now was more determined than ever to make things right, I went ahead as planned. By the end of my night of baking, I had a dozen golden, pumpkin-raisin muffins on a cooling rack, two of which were promptly devoured with a feeling of triumph on my part, and muffled mouthfuls of "good, mmm, yah, good" from my guy.

Because of the success of this batch, I gave the muffin thing another try, this time with a different recipe. These ones turned out even better and I'm feeling like I'm really liking this baking thing. After years of baking absence, I had become a little intimidated by the whole idea. But now after several attempts, I'm ready for more. I'm certain there'll be further pitfalls and some ho-hum results, but I also have high hopes for more of the sweet taste of victory.

Recipe for (moist and scrumptious) Banana-Carob Bran Muffins

1 1/2 cups natural wheat bran
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup carob or chocolate chips, or dried fruit

Combine the above dry ingredients and mix lightly in a bowl. In another bowl, thoroughly mix the wet ingredients below.

1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup packed brown or raw sugar
1 egg, slightly beaten
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1 cup plain yogurt

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Spoon the batter into paper-lined, greased or non-stick muffin tins. Bake at 400 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, or until firm to the touch. Remove and let cool on a wire rack. Makes 12 muffins.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Getting the Skinny on Bean Curd Skin

When I was a young Jennifer, I used to love it when my mom would add bean curd to her soups. Already chock-full of flavour from carefully simmered pork bones, Chinese veggies and herbs, the curds didn't so much add flavour, as they did texture and substance. But before those words were in my vocabulary, I just enjoyed watching my mom take those long, dry, wrinkly curd sticks and break them over the stock pot. Soon after their immersion, they would puff into shape and become completely different entities. It was science in the kitchen. My sister and I used to call the rehydrated curds "blankets", because of the way the soft sheets floated and gathered, covering the soup's surface. And after sitting in the soup for but a few moments, they quickly absorbed the soup's flavour, making them deliciously easy to slurp up.

Nowadays, you can still buy dried bean curds sticks at most Chinese markets, but about a year ago, I discovered them fresh. At first I was puzzled as to what to do with them. They didn't look like the ones I knew. They were flat, folded, and moist! I recollected the bean curd skin dishes I'd had at some Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, and those were good but deep-fried, and deep-frying at home can get messy. Plus, bean curd skin is rich in iron and calcium, and I wanted to appreciate their nutritional value by not burning them into oblivion. Thanks to a kind lady I met at T& T, I now have a quick and flavourful recipe for fresh bean curd skin. Thanks again kind lady wherever you are!
  • Cut the fresh bean curd into squares.
  • In a small bowl, mix equal amounts of soy sauce and *oyster sauce. Add enough water to make the sauce a little runny.
  • Cut up some green onion and cilantro.
  • Heat up a frying pan on medium heat with a little oil.
  • Using chopsticks, dip the bean curd squares into the sauce, place them in the pan, and sprinkle on the cilantro and green onions.
  • Once the bean curds are cooked through, eat them hot over a bed of steaming white rice. So good...
(*I like to use Lee Kum Kee brand Vegetarian Mushroom Flavoured Stir-Fry Sauce. It's a tasty, MSG-free oyster sauce alternative.)

Bean curd is made from the skin that forms at the surface when soybeans are boiled to make soy milk. This skin is skimmed off and formed into dried bean curd sticks or sheets, or fresh bean curd skin. Fresh bean curd skin can be bought at T&T Supermarket in the refrigerated section. The Honaji brand is my favourite. They use non-GMO soy beans and are a local company situated in Coquitlam. They make other soy products as well including tubs (now that's thinking!) of sweetened soft tofu dessert.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Roll With Me Hungry!

(a nod to Etta James for title inspiration)
Vietnamese Salad Rolls snuggling cozily

Vietnamese Salad Rolls are one of the things that I love to order when hungry, in a hurry, and not wanting to feel comatose after a large meal. When out for a bite, I usually eat a lot and gravitate towards set menus. This is mostly because of my rather grand appetite, an inability to decide on what to order (because I want everything), and because a variety of foods usually provides the full range of flavours I need to feel satisfied. Vietnamese Salad Rolls are not considered a full meal, but after eating a few, can satisfy just as a full meal can. Why? Because these tubular delights are filled with protein, fresh vegetables and starch. And when dipped in its accompanying sauce, achieves a perfect savoury flavour balance. I love the Salad Roll!

And thankfully, I now have a method for making these morsels that puts them on my regular menu at home. I had been all but discouraged in the past after creating too many rolls with holes in them. In retrospect, I had probably put too much filling in each, but it does take care not to tear the paper while rolling. My current method is virtually tear-free, and the recipe for the sauce is a true winner. I have to give kudos to one of my Vietnamese students for this recipe because it makes these rolls rock.

The ingredients for the rolls are: round rice paper, cooked vermicelli noodles, and the filling of your choice. Thinly sliced pork and prawns boiled, de-veined and sliced lengthwise are traditional, but this time I decided to use deep-fried tofu, green leaf lettuce, carrots and cilantro. Basil tastes great in this too.

For the sauce you will need: 3 tbsp hoisin sauce, 2 tbsp coconut milk, 1 tbsp peanut butter, a minced clove of garlic, and oil. Mix it all together in a small saucepan, add water for the desired consistency and taste, and stir at medium heat until it bubbles. Turn the heat off and serve.

Now for the rolling. In the past, I have rolled it with the rice paper open, (and this is the way it's done at the restaurants), but this is the trick I am most pleased with: folding the rice paper in half before you roll it. This way, the skin is thicker, and it is easier to keep the filling together as you roll without any tearing. It seems simple but it made a big difference for me. I think it makes them look nicer too, because the stuffing sticks out at each end enticingly. And after the first bite, you will be enticed into another and another. That's because Vietnamese Salad Rolls really are fresh, filling, and flavourful all in one. And perhaps, a little too fast to eat!