In the U.S., avocados are most often eaten in savory dishes, sliced to adorn salads or made into guacamole.
As a little girl, my mum would make us a very simple snack–she’d halve an avocado, drizzle some palm sugar syrup (made by melting gula jawa a.k.a. arenga palm sugar) over each half and hand us a spoon. I’d scoop out the flesh bit by little bit, making sure I got a good dose of caramelly syrup with each spoonful of creamy avocado.
I still eat avocados this way once in awhile but I’m more likely to make es alpukat, a light and refreshing that satisfies my craving for something sweet on a hot summer day. Es alpukat (literally iced avocado) is ubiquitous in Indonesia, available at just about any restaurant or at a street-side stall, but it’s easy enough to make at home.
The name makes no mention of it but coffee is usually added to the drink. You can always leave it out or substitute with chocolate milk.
What’s your favorite way with avocados?
Iced Avocado and Coffee Drink (Es Alpukat)
Es Alpukat is the perfect dessert if you are following a heart-healthy diet. The rich, creamy flesh of avocado gives this drink richness and body but it contains “good” mono and polyunsaturated fats, is naturally cholesterol-free as well as being chock full of nutrients like Vitamin E and folate. So you can drink up guilt-free. The Indonesian way is to serve it over ice and scoop out the avocado chunks with a spoon, but you can blend it like a milkshake–and add ice cream!– if you prefer.
Makes: 4 (1-cup) servings
1 large ripe Hass avocado
1/3 cup espresso plus 2/3 cup water, or 1 cup strong brewed coffee, cooled
2 cups whole or 2 percent milk
1/4 cup Pandan Syrup (see below)
Chocolate syrup (optional)
Using a tablespoon, scoop avocado flesh in bite-sized chunks into a medium bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
To serve, squirt the chocolate syrup to coat the insides of 4 tall, clear glasses. Divide the mixture equally. Add ice cubes and sprinkle with ground coffee just before serving.
All this is is a rich simple syrup steeped with pandan leaves with a 2:1 sugar-to-water ratio so you can adjust amounts according to your needs. Use one pandan leaf for every cup of sugar. The cooled syrup can be bottled and keeps in the refrigerator for up to two months. You can use the syrup to sweeten teas and other mixed drinks too.
Time: 15 minutes
Makes: 2-1/2 cups
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 pandan leaves, trimmed and tied into separate knots
In a medium (2-quart) saucepan, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and stir continuously until the sugar dissolves, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Remove the leaves and pour the syrup into a jar or bottle. Refrigerate for up to two months.
Several recipes I learned while writing The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook are still in my everyday cooking repertoire. Mochiko Fried Chicken (pg. 187), Japanese-Style Hamburgers (pg. 153), Deep-Fried Tofu Simmered with Tomatoes (pg. 123), just to name a few.
And an all-time favorite–Caramelized Chicken with Lemongrass and Chilies (pg. 179).
Seemingly simple at first, this is one recipe that takes practice to perfect. Over the years, I’ve managed to improve the final outcome bit by bit.
I confidently caramelized the sugar to the point where it turns a rich mahogany and hovers on the bittersweet, and doesn’t burn. I know that the quality of the chicken is very very important to this dish. The chicken has to be fresh and definitely not plumped up with water. The extra liquid released during cooking turns the chicken pieces into mush, far from the nicely bronzed outcome you want. Now, I can make this dish with my eyes closed (well, almost!) and it turns out delicious every time.
But I am always left with one conundrum: what to do with the lemongrass tops? I’ve tossed the tops into a pot with tea. I’ve made lemongrass vinegar. And then it came to me–why not poach chicken? It would make an excellent addition to a mixed green salad, my Harvest Rice Salad, and for a summery chicken salad for your next picnic.
The chicken turned out soft and tender, and was imbued with a delightful lemony scent and flavor. The remaining stock was so fragrant I was almost tempted to stick my head over the pot and breathe in the aromatherapy “fumes!” I decided to save it for another dish instead.
What do you do with your lemongrass tops?
Lemongrass Tea-Poached Chicken
I used boneless chicken thighs for this method (I wouldn’t even call it a recipe!) because that’s what I always eat but you can use breasts too if you prefer. You can put the tea leaves into a cheesecloth sachet but I find that the tea leaves can be easily scraped off. If you only have tea bags, use one tea bag and remove it once the water comes to a boil, unless you want a stronger tea flavor. Try adding other complementary herbs to the mix like Thai basil, ginger, or green onions.
Time: 20 minutes
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon good quality looseleaf black or green tea
Tops from 3 to 4 stalks of lemongrass
3 smallish boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 3/4 pound)
Fill a heavy (2-quart) pot about halfway full with water, just enough to cover the chicken pieces. Add the salt, tea, and lemongrass tops, and bring to a boil. Add the chicken and bring it back to a simmer. Turn off the heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and remove the pot from the stove (important if you have an electric stove). Let sit for about 15 minutes (thicker pieces may take longer) or until the chicken is no longer pink inside (cut into a piece to check). If it is, put the lid back on and wait another 5 to 10 minutes.
Let the chicken cool a little then put it in the fridge overnight to cool completely. Remove the chicken from the liquid and shred with two forks or cut into slices.
My parents aren’t natural storytellers (perhaps I should ask more often?) but every once in awhile a gem from their childhood pops up. Like this one story my mum recently told me: Ma remembers always waking up from her afternoon naps to the intoxicating aroma of freshly-baked-or-cooked something wafting in from the kitchen. To get her and her siblings to fall asleep with the least amount of fuss, Popo, her mother and my grandmother, would promise her and her siblings a treat when they woke up. The post-nap delights ranged from roti bakso (savory meat-filled buns) to kue mangkok (“cup”cakes), and all were delectable.
While Ma and my uncle and aunts wriggled restlessly in their beds anticipating what lay in wait for them when they woke up, I envision Popo (whom I only know from photos) hard at work in her tropical kitchen. As she rolled and flattened soft balls of dough, she’d occasionally wipe sweat from her brow with a hanky she stuffed into her bra strap. Taking a teaspoon in hand, she’d scoop a mixture of pork, candied winter melon, and green onions into the middle of each dough disc. Gently, she’d bring the dough edges together and wrap it up into a neat oval package as she listened for rogue sounds coming from the children’s bedroom.
When Ma and her siblings woke up in a couple of hours, the buns would be out of the oven and ready to be grabbed by little hands and devoured with squeals of delight.
All this I see in the sepia tones of my mind’s eye, imagining what my mom’s childhood was like and what Popo was like.
Inspired by this perfect anecdote, I decided to recreate this experience for my son with my own post-nap treat.
One Tuesday afternoon after Isaac goes down for his nap, I busy myself in the kitchen. I want to bake banana bread but I only had two bananas (three at first but one was so ripe it fell splat on the floor when I accidentally dropped it). Desperation incites innovation and digging around my kitchen, I discover two bright yellow mangoes, ripe and ready to eat, in my fridge.
Bananas and mangoes are both tropical, I convince myself, they’ll couple very well in a quick bread recipe!
As I prepare all the ingredients, I hear a squawk. My heart sinks, it’s been barely 30 minutes since Isaac went down! Sure enough, the little guy emerges from his room, his disheveled hair in a post-nap Mohawk. I panick for two seconds before realizing, wait, he can help me bake! All kids love to measure ingredients and mix batter don’t they?
Isaac has never really shown much interest in helping me in the kitchen and I’ve never forced him. But this time, I drag his stool into the kitchen and try and talk up the mother-and-son baking experience.
“This is going to be so much fun! You can measure the sugar, flour and butter, and mix everything together. Come help mommy in the kitchen.”
“I don’t want to. I want to watch TV!”
“But baking is so much fun! Don’t’ you want to help mommy?”
“I don’t want to! I want to watch TV!”
A few volleys back and forth ending with a promise of “Thomas the Tank Engine” later, Isaac steps up onto his stool. He starts by scooping sugar into the mixing bowl. Then he helps me add the butter and proceeds to “cream” the mixture with a wooden spoon. After two or three turns around the bowl, he declares, “I’m done!” He hops off the stool and goes off to play with his airplanes.
Nothing I can say henceforth can cajole him back into the kitchen.
Feeling dejected, I finish mixing the batter and shove the loaf pan into the oven.
As I sit down to wait for the bread to bake, I realize how silly I was for getting frustrated. Did I really expect everything to go according plan? Hah, it was definitely wishful thinking on my part.
If there’s one important lesson to take away from raising a toddler, it’s that you should always expect the unexpected. It builds character and encourages a flexible outlook on life. And sometimes results in a new favorite recipe!
Simple and straightforward, the original banana bread recipe came to me on the back of a bag of flour many years ago when I was in college. It’s been my go-to recipe ever since. Over the years, I’ve mixed it up a little: varying the ratio of white to brown sugar, using a combo of all-purpose and whole wheat flour (I add some applesauce or yogurt to moisten it up), substituting butter for shortening, etc., etc. And the sweet smelling loaf—crusted in a shiny mahogany veneer–comes out lovely every time!
Time: 10 minutes prep, 50 minutes baking
Makes: 1 loaf
3/4 cup granulated raw sugar or brown sugar (I really like Wholesome Sweeteners brand)
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 eggs at room temperature
1-3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 very ripe honey (Altaufo) mango, peeled, seeded, chopped and mashed (about 1 cup)
2 large bananas, mashed
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan.
In a medium mixing bowl, cream the sugar and butter with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs and beat well.
Sift flour, baking powder and soda and salt and add to the creamed mixture. Stir in the mango and banana and mix until just blended. It will be lumpy but don’t fret.
Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin for about 10 minutes before turning the loaf onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing (if you can wait!).
Help! I’ve turned into my mother!
As much as I love my mum, I’ve lived in fear that our bloodlines run so deep I was bound to inherit some of her “quirky” (yes, that’s a diplomatic term) traits sooner or later.
While I’ve managed to dodge Ma’s penchant for sucking in her breath every time the car brakes (an unfortunate habit learned over decades of being in the passenger seat while my dad is driving), or haggling with poverty-stricken market vendors in developing countries over 10 cents or some such paltry sum (seriously, my heart breaks every time I witness this injustice), like her, I am now a perpetual rice-eater.
No matter how much protein or how many potatoes I consume, if I don’t eat rice, I’m just not satisfied. Not to mention, my belly starts rumbling barely an hour later.
Growing up, hot and fluffy rice took pride of place in the center of the dinner table, forming the blank canvas of my childhood palate. Plain white rice, usually jasmine, would be embellished by a stir-fry of bok choy and garlic, and turmeric fried chicken or spicy beef curry. The next day, any leftover rice was transformed into fried rice or thick rice porridge for breakfast.
Granted this rice-eating habit has followed me into adulthood, but when days are pushing 80 or 90 degrees, the last place I want to be is in a smoldering hot kitchen.
And so began my quest for no-cook — or as close to it as one can possibly get — rice recipes.
I’ve been inspired by visits to farmers’ markets, my favorite cookbook authors, and by experimenting with creative riffs on Asian favorites. The results were spectacular: a mound of rice studded with assorted seasonal vegetables, like gems, and seasoned with my favorite vinaigrette du jour; no-cook “fried” rice using the same ingredients but in different guises — grated carrots, shredded Chinese cabbage and crumbled hard-cooked eggs tossed with rice; rice cakes dipped in wasabi dressing, and the list goes on.
In the end, I’ve discovered several “out-of-the-wok” rice recipes to add to my repertoire, often saving the day when the pool, rather than the stove, beckoned.
Thank you, Ma, I owe you for this one!
Harvest Red Rice Salad
I’ve grown to love the reddish-brown hue of Thai red rice, some grains with the bran rubbed off to reveal the white beneath. The needle-thin grains are pretty to look at and have a pleasing chewy, nutty flavor. Thai red rice is unmilled (like brown rice) and takes longer to cook than polished rice like jasmine. However, because the grains are slender, they cook more quickly than other unmilled rices and use less water. Use a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid to ensure the steam is retained in the pot during cooking. One cup raw rice yields about 3 cups cooked rice. Measurements and times vary according to rice type, so follow the package directions. Jasmine rice takes 15 to 18 minutes. Find red rice at Asian markets or specialty markets, or substitute brown rice.
Makes: 4 salad servings, or 2 light lunch servings
1 cup Thai red rice
1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup fresh lime or lemon juice (about 2 large limes or 1 lemon)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 heaping tablespoon honey
1 cucumber, peeled and chopped
2 green onions, using green parts only, chopped
1/2 green or red bell pepper, chopped (1/2 cup)
1/4 small red onion, finely chopped (1/4 cup)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Wash the rice well and drain. In a heavy-bottomed pot, combine the rice and stock. Bring to a boil over high heat and let boil for 1 minute. Stir the rice to prevent sticking. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and simmer until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand covered for 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, whirl the canola oil, lime juice, soy sauce and honey in a blender until smooth to make the vinaigrette.
When done, fluff the rice with a fork and combine the rice and vegetables in a large bowl. Add the vinaigrette and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let the salad sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving, or refrigerate for later.
This post is part of the monthly #Let’s Lunch blogger potluck. For more Let’s Lunch “Too Hot to Cook” posts, follow #LetsLunch on Twitter or visit my fellow bloggers below:
Lucy’s “The Girl in a Hat Goes on a Picnic” at A Cook and Her Books.
Monica’s Peanut Salad at A Life of Spice
Lisa’s Aperol Spritz Granita at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Cheryl’s Mango-Key Lime Pie at A Tiger in the Kitchen
Linda’s Escape from San Francisco Picnic at Spicebox Travels
Have you ever been struck by an incessant food craving that just won’t go away? (No, this has nothing to do with pregnancy.) It’s kinda like an earworm (click here for more info about this wonderful new word I just learned about on NPR), a song that lodges in your head and plays over and over again.
Most often, it’s a childhood snack or comfort food you crave–mom’s mac and cheese, Twinkies (RIP), or cherry-flavored jello. And it’s always, always, always, annoying because you simply can’t shake it off until you actually indulge it.
In my case, I’ve been fantasizing about glutinous rice balls in sugar syrup (also known as tang yuan,汤圆) for the last week or so. You know, those chewy white balls made from glutinous (or sweet rice) flour, the ones that burst open with one bite, releasing a lavalike flow of sweet black sesame paste?
So when Diana Kuan (who writes the marvelous blog appetiteforchina.com) invited me to participate in her Chinese New Year potluck to celebrate her new book The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, one recipe was calling, siren-like, out to me.
I’ve seen black sesame ice cream on menus before but I’ve never tried it, let alone attempted to make it. However, Diana’s recipe is so simple that my mind was made up before you could say “black sesame.” I whipped up the ice cream base in barely 10 minutes and the ice cream machine did the rest of the work.
The four hours the ice cream had to sit in the freezer to set seemed like a toe-tapping eternity. As soon as the timer went off, I scooped some out, sat down with a bowl of cool, nutty black sesame ice cream and ate my craving away spoonful by luscious spoonful.
If you’d like to win a copy of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, please leave a comment below telling me where and/or in what dish you’ve tried black sesame seeds (and even if you haven’t, leave a comment anyway)! I’ll select a winner at random on March 8th.
Black Sesame Ice Cream
Adapted from The Chinese Takeout Cookbook by Diana Kuan
Diana uses a light Philadelphia-style eggless base for this delicious dessert infused with a hint of vanilla and the more dramatic nutty fragrance and flavor of black sesame, which is almost akin to dark chocolate or French roast coffee. I lightened it up a little and used half-and-half instead of heavy cream for a fluffier gelato-like texture. If you can actually resist gorging, the ice cream stores well in the freezer for up to a week.
Makes: 1 quart
Time: 10 minutes, active
2 cups half-and-half, or heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1/∕8 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup black sesame seeds
Ice cream maker
Combine 1 cup of the heavy cream, the sugar, and salt in a large bowl and whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Stir in the remaining 1 cup heavy cream, the milk, and vanilla extract. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour. (If you are in a hurry, skip this step).
Grind the sesame seeds in a clean spice grinder for about 5 seconds until they turn into a coarse powder. Don’t grind for too long as the seeds will turn into a paste.
Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and slowly pour in the ground black sesame. Churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the ice cream to a freezersafe container and freeze for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Now for some disclaimers: I received a copy of this book as thanks for writing a blurb for the back cover. And in participating in this potluck, I’ll be given a copy of The Chinese Takeout Cookboook to share with one lucky reader as well as be entered in a giveaway. However, I am endorsing this book because it has awesome, easy recipes that I know you, my reader, will enjoy.
The Lunar New Year celebration lasts 15 days so there’s still plenty of time to eat your fill of lucky and auspicious foods for a prosperous year ahead.
Egg rolls (also called fried spring rolls) are a favorite all year round but they’re considered an auspicious food during the new year because they resemble gold bars and thus symbolize wealth and prosperity!
If you’d like to see a demo of me rolling egg rolls as well as learn more about lucky new year foods, here’s a video of my segment on King5 TV’s New Day Northwest (click on the still below and you’ll be taken to the video):
Here’s my recipe, enjoy!
Fried Egg Rolls (蛋卷)
I’ve adapted this lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) recipe from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. I used carrots because in Mandarin, orange carrots are called hong luo bo (红萝卜), i.e. “red carrots,” and red symbolizes good fortune, while the yellow carrots are close enough to a golden hue and gold symbolizes wealth. Chinese chives are known as jiu cai (韭菜) which sounds like “forever vegetable,” and who doesn’t want a long life? Feel free to add or subtract whatever ingredients you’d like. Ground pork, glass noodles, cabbage, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, etc., are all great ingredients to add to the mix. The filling can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Makes: about 25 egg rolls
Time: 1-1/2 hours
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
3 medium orange and yellow carrots, shredded (1-1/2 cups)
1 cup (4 ounces) finely chopped green beans
1 stalk Chinese chives, finely chopped
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
1 package egg roll wrappers (usually 25 wrappers, click here for my favorite brand)
1 egg white, beaten, or water for sealing
3 cups (or as needed) vegetable oil for deep-frying
Sweet and Sour Sauce (recipe follows)
To make the filling, place the chicken in a medium saucepan and fill with water until the chicken is submerged by about an inch. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water starts to boil, turn off the heat and cover. Let the chicken stand for 15 minutes. Test by cutting into a piece: it should not be pink. Let cool and shred the meat along the grain into tiny shards with your fingers, or chop into a confetti-sized dice. Reserve the stock for another use or discard.
In a small skillet, heat the 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is soft and light golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken, carrots, and green beans, and stir to mix. Add the soy sauce, remaining salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper (or to taste) and mix thoroughly. Add the Chinese chives and stir and cook until the mixture is heated through.
Allow the filling to cool completely.
To assemble the egg rolls, carefully peel one wrapper from the stack (cover the remaining wrappers with a damp cloth to keep them moist). Lay the wrapper on a dry work surface with one corner pointing toward you.) Place 2 tablespoons of filling just below the center line of the wrapper parallel to your body. Shape it into a mound 1 by 3 inches, leaving about 2½ inches on either side. Fold the corner closest to you over the filling and tuck it under snugly. Roll once, then fold the left and right sides in to form an envelope. Continue to roll the filling tightly into a fat tube until you reach the end of the wrapper. Before you reach the end, dab some egg white or water along the top edge to seal the egg roll. The egg roll should measure 4 to 5 inches in length and 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Place on a plate or tray and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining filling and wrappers.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Line a plate with paper towels. In a large wok, heavy skillet, or Dutch oven, heat the 3 cups oil over high heat until it reaches 350 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer.
Reduce the heat to medium-high. Using tongs, gently lower the egg rolls into the oil one by one; fry in a batch of 5 or 6 until both sides are evenly golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the egg rolls with a slotted spoon, shaking off excess oil, and drain on paper towels. Keep warm in the oven.
Bring the oil temperature back to 350 degrees F before frying the next batch. Repeat with the remaining egg rolls. Serve immediately with sweet and sour sauce.
Sweet and Sour Sauce
3 tablespoons rice or distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water to form a slurry
In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar, ketchup, and soy sauce to a boil over medium heat. Stir the cornstarch slurry and add to the pan, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Pour into a small bowl and serve with the egg rolls.
Some egg roll making tips (don’t heed at your own risk!):
- Keep your egg roll wrappers frozen and defrost in the refrigerator for an hour or two, or on the counter for 3o minutes.
- If your wrappers dry out, cover with a damp towel and microwave on medium for 10 seconds. They should soften up but work quickly before they dry out again and keep covered with a damp towel!
- Allow your filling to cool completely before wrapping your egg rolls. A warm filling may cause your wrapper to soften and tear, and your egg roll to fall apart.
- Don’t overfill your wrapper or #3 will happen.
- Make sure your oil is at the optimum temp before you start frying. Otherwise your egg rolls will come out soggy instead of crisp.
- When frying, don’t overcrowd your pan, otherwise #5 will happen.
- You can freeze unfried or fried egg rolls. Lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze them for about an hour. Then transfer them to a ziptop bag and freeze for up to three months.
- When ready to eat, deep-fry the frozen egg rolls (don’t defrost) for 2 to 3 minutes (pre-fried) or 5 to 7 minutes (unfried).
- To warm up fried egg rolls (that have been refrigerated or kept at room temp), preheat your oven to 325 degrees F and heat for 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp.
Here are some other dishes to help usher in a happy and prosperous new year: