Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Simply Luscious Hot Chocolate—Easy and Fast

Tired of kiddy-style, overly sweet hot chocolate? Nothing yummy about those icky mixes. You can make your own easily and scrumptiously with milk, powdered cocoa, vanilla extract, turbinado sugar, and maybe a dash of cayenne pepper—and I recommend you do so. But here's another exciting twist—one you may not have thought of that could take on obsession status.

First, you need to have either baking chocolate or a bar of high-quality bittersweet chocolate on hand. We are lucky to have a Trader Joe's nearby, where they stock fabulous 72% cacao Belgian chocolate bars in the pound-plus size for about $4. Take two squares of bittersweet chocolate and drop them in a cup of milk. No wait—trust me on this. Stick your cup in the microwave and zap for two to two-and-a-half minutes (checking to make sure it does not bubble over). Stir thoroughly when you remove it to finish dissolving all the melted chocolate into the milk. What's surprising is that it does dissolve and turns into a thick, irresistible treat (though not a low-calorie one).

If melted chocolate hot chocolate doesn't provide comfort on a chilly morning, I don't expect anything will. Why is this hot chocolate so great? First of all, it's not too sweet. Less sweet is far more tantalizing—it's like a flirtation rather than an all-on assault. Secondly, the fat, yes—the fat—makes it satisfying and delicious ("Talk about your childhood wishes/You could even eat the dishes"). For a slightly sweeter variation, put in one square of milk chocolate and one square of bittersweet. This version of hot chocolate is one of those things that's so simple and so great, it's a "why didn't I think of that" delight. Enjoy!

Breaking news:

Don't Worry, Be Happy and Drink Lots of Cocoa

Men who are happy and drink cocoa often are found to live longer, Dutch study shows.

What to Do with All This Ham: How to Magically Transform Ham Leftovers

Has the Easter Bunny come and gone and left you with pounds of ham in your refrigerator that you don't know what to do with? Do you find you can't face another plate of, well, sliced ham? Here are some easy and fabulous tricks to serve your loved ones leftover ham that has no hint of its former origin. You will win praise and admiration, and secretly know you were smart to use up rather than throw out.

Asian Fried Rice——See my recipe for authentic, Japanese-style fried rice (chahan), using ham as your main ingredient (instead of shrimp). I served this to my family last night. We all had not just seconds but thirds. Be sure to make a large quantity, because it's also good the next day for lunch. If you have a rice cooker, then nothing could be easier.

Asian-style Ham Noodle Salad——Cook a 12 oz. package of chow mein noodles (they look like spaghetti noodles), as directed, rinse in cold water to stop them from growing, drain and then set aside. Julienne about half a pound (a couple of cups worth) of ham——long, thin slices work well with the chow mein. If you have pineapple on hand, slice about one cup worth, also thinly, and add to the ham. Add in a cup of any veggies you like——carrots sliced thinly, cooked and cooled green beans (I especially recommend the skinny French green beans, haricot vert), asparagus spears, and or mushrooms. Toss with Asian Restaurant Ginger-Soy salad dressing (recipe below), along with the noodles, and serve over a bed of fresh greens, such as spinach, romaine, endive, etc.

Asian Restaurant Ginger-Soy Salad Dressing——Grate enough fresh ginger root (a couple of tablespoons) to squeeze out 1 tablespoon of ginger juice. To the ginger juice add 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, and 1/3 cup of salad oil. If you have sesame seeds, toss in a tablespoon (especially love the toasted kind, called irigoma). Remember how to make this dressing--it is to-die-for delicious with so many other salads, and is ridiculously easy to make.

Split Pea Soup with Ham——Soup is delightful because it's so comforting. And to that, add that's it's simple to prepare——toss the ingredients in a pot and stir it once in a while until it's cooked. Why, then, does no one make homemade soup anymore? (Except me. We have soup two or three times a week! Soup makes me happy.)

Rinse the split peas (a 12 oz. package, or two cups) and pick out any that don't look right. Add 8 cups of water (two quarts), one coarsely chopped carrot, one or two coarsely chopped celery sticks, and one coarsely chopped medium onion. Why coarse? Because the veggies will disintegrate into the soup, so don't spend any time making them look lovely. Add a bay leaf if you have one. Add ground fresh pepper to taste, and Vege-sal seasoned salt to taste. I recommend Vege-sal because it is made from dehydrated veggies and salt. It's basically vegetable bouillon, only much nicer. Vege-sal makes soup——and many other dishes—exquisitely more savory. It's the secret weapon of a savvy chef. If you don't have it, use Kosher salt, though. Lastly, add in about a cup of finely chopped ham. Why finely? Because the ham won't disintegrate like the veggies will. Boil the soup for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the peas and veggies are so tender they fall apart, put the soup in a blender and puree it. Serve hot, with some extra finely sliced ham for guests to add in as a garnish.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Revise, Don't Reject: Salvaging Not-Quite-Wonderful Recipes

Recently I tried a recipe for Peppery Artichoke Pitas, from Better Homes & Gardens' Vegetarian Cooking. On a whole, the recipe wasn't bad, but it wasn't quite wonderful either. There's nothing wrong with the recipe, I just don't much care for cold beans in anything other than 3-bean salad.

However, the whole time I was eating the sandwiches, I kept thinking, "This would do really well as a spread." So before I scribbled a "do not make again" note on the recipe's page in my cookbook, I decided to do a little revision before I outright rejected the recipe. For me, it was another reminder that sometimes recipes are just guidelines. First drafts waiting for the customized modifications that will make them wonderful final versions for you.

The Original Recipe -- Peppery Artichoke Pitas
(Serves 6)

You need:
•15-oz can Great Northern or cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
•14-oz can quartered artichoke hearts (not marinated), drained and chopped
•1/2 cup torn arugula or baby spinach
•1/4 cup creamy garlic dressing
•1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
•3 pita bread rounds, cut in half

To make:
•Mix the first 5 ingredients in a medium-sized bowl.
•Spoon into pita bread halves and serve.

Now, again, it's not a bad recipe as it is (especially if you like cold beans). My vegetarian friend, Jennifer, loves the original recipe. But I did observe several things:

•The process moves faster if you dump the artichoke hearts and arugula/spinach leaves into a food processor on the Chop setting.
•The recipe works better with arugula, which has a stronger, peppery flavor. With spinach, you’ll need more pepper or a strong-flavored garlic dressing.
•This recipe works better with cracked black pepper than ground. If you substitute with ground black pepper, you may need to add more.
•This recipe tastes a lot better when served at room temperature than when served cold from the fridge.

The Variation
Make this a spread to put on things like Wasa or other crackers, or thick multigrain bread.

You can take the whole prepared mixture and dump it into a food processor. While the beans and everything else mash up well, it’s a little harder getting the artichoke hearts mashed. You can get a better consistency -- and a better integration of flavors -- if you mash the beans first in the food processor, then add the artichoke hearts and mash some more, then add the remaining three ingredients. As a spread, it tastes equally good when served at room temp or cold from the fridge. You might also warm it up in the microwave (not scalding hot), and serve it on crackers with a little grated parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

Try it. And if you come up with other variations, let us know!!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Perilla, Shiso, Beefsteak Leaf, That Odd Lip-smacking Green Leaf You Get Served at Japanese Restaurants

Do you know the leaf I am talking about? It looks like this:

Shiso, or beefsteak plant, or perilla, silam, tia to, kemangi, duelkkae, pinyin, or "no-name accent green at Japanese restaurants" is a fun, minty, hard-to-define flavor. Kind of like arugula, but not. It's a tongue-tickling taste I cannot love more. Chopped finely and added as an accent to other veggies or rice or soups or noodles, shiso adds a unique something, which all but the most significant foodgeeks will be unable to place. What IS that bright, high-impact flavor?

You won't want to gobble down handfuls of shiso, because it is a strong force. But as an accent, an accompaniment to something bland, this mighty leaf packs a nice green punch. Sashimi is often served on a layer of shiso leaves, fanned out in a beautiful array. Thin slices of shiso get cut into various makizushi (rolled sushi), and are used as a topping for pasta dishes and soups in Japan. Other Asian countries love shiso as well--you can find it in Indonesia, Korea, China, all the way over to Nepal and India. And you will likely see more and more shiso wend its way to the gourmet American palate.

Where do you find shiso? You can grow it with little effort here in southern California and can sometimes (not frequently) find the young plants for sale at larger garden centers (like Green Thumb). If you do grow shiso, be sure to harvest the leaves when they are fully formed but not allowed to sit on the stems too long. Over a couple of weeks, shiso can become bitter. And if you have a choice between the green shiso and the red shiso, get the green--it tastes yummier and does better in a home garden.

You can find shiso at Asian grocers, usually in the refrigerated section, in little bundles tied with a rubber band, as shown above. Shiso is not cheap, but then again, you need only a little to have an impact. If you haven't tasted it yet, be sure to give shiso a nibble. As Marilyn Monroe sang, "You will be surprised."