Thai Chicken with Basil and Cashews

I started buying a CSA box this year. I really like getting a variety of veggies, but it can be a struggle to figure out what to do with them, particularly when the farm has a bumper crop of the same vegetable each week. I did a good job of eating everything in the early spring, but when work got busy in June, I basically decided I didn’t want to cook any more. I’m sure you noticed the slowing down of recipe posts over the past few months, and it wasn’t just fun bread and dessert recipes that I neglected. I neglected dinner, too.

I found a recipe for Thai Chicken with Basil and Cashews when I finally got around to reading a previous issue of Eating Well. I was excited because I had everything to make it. It would help me use up the scallions and squash I’d stashed in the fridge but forgotten about, and would let me use some of the fresh basil that I keep feeling guilty about not using.

I generally enjoy Eating Well recipes, but I always double the sauce recipe since they never include enough sauce with their stir fries. The original recipe called for fish sauce, which I really don’t like the smell of. I refuse to keep it in the house, but I always substitute soy sauce with great, although perhaps not identical, results.

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Kung Pao Chicken Tacos

I’m going to complain about a rather tasty dinner I made.

Yes, complain. Because although Kung Pao Chicken Tacos were tasty, it was an awful lot of prep for 5 minutes of eating dinner.

I know that I’m the person who makes her own vanilla extract; who takes the time to make my own bread from scratch, sometimes even if I knead it by hand; who will roast chickens for fun; and who will even take the time to make candy on the stove. But after work, several short and easy steps just seem frustratingly numerous and time-consuming. I particularly don’t like the drudgery of chopping things for dinner after work.

Maybe it’s just the weeknight timing that’s frustrated me with this recipe today. Luckily, my time spent produced good food. Here’s how I made yummy tacos.

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Thai-Style Vegetable Rice Noodles

Summer in St. Louis is the pits. For those of you who say “summer doesn’t start until Wednesday,” I present you with St. Louis weather. Our high today was 96; drought conditions are spreading, yet humidity is high; and the next cold front that moves through here will knock the temperatures down to a cool 89 degrees.

Which, incidentally, is the temperature in my kitchen. Seriously. Every now and then, for kicks, I put the battery in my probe thermometer and measure the air temperature instead of the temperature of a roast or a chicken. After it told me that the air in the kitchen today, while I wasn’t cooking, was 88.5, I carried the thermometer into the office, where it tells me the top of my desk is 87.9.

Oh, and we have “central air.” Right now I’d rather have a single good window unit.

Now that I’m done complaining, I can tell you about what I’m cooking to cope. I barely turn on my oven. Nothing I cook uses the stove for more than a few minutes at a time. Tonight I made Rice Krispies treats (using the microwave, naturally). I made ice cream the other day.

Tonight’s dinner was Thai-Style Vegetable Rice Noodles. It used my stove minimally, and is supposed to be served cool or cold. I’ve had noodle bowls similar to this when I’ve got to Vietnamese restaurants and enjoyed them, so I was excited to try this. It was a great meal for today.

Thai-Style Vegetable Rice Noodles
Thai-Style Vegetable Rice Noodles

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Kung Pao Sauce

For the Chinese New Year, I decided I would season the wok that I’ve had for several years but never used. I’d never seasoned a wok before, and I didn’t do a good job the first time. The basic idea behind seasoning a wok is to incorporate oil into the hot metal wok to make it non-stick. You heat a wok; add oil; let the oil heat up (and likely smoke); and coat the inner surface of the wok with the smoking hot oil. You’re supposed to go through this process two or three times, but I was impatient; I decided to try cooking in it before it was ready, and the food stuck. So, lesson learned: go through the seasoning process two or three times before cooking, or else.

Now that my wok is more appropriately seasoned, it cooks well. To test it, I made a stirfry. Nothing fancy – just some broccoli and cabbage that I bought on sale. I can crank my gas burner up high because the wok doesn’t have a nonstick coating, and so it cooks everything quickly. It’s awesome.

I didn’t really have a recipe for a stirfry, but my friend Brion shared Ming Tsai’s Kung Pao sauce recipe with me, and that seemed like a great way to flavor my food. I honestly think it took less than 10 minutes to make.

simple stirfry with Kung Pao Sauce

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Hainan Chicken and Rice

Happy Lunar New Year! There are a variety of foods that one is supposed to eat for the lunar new year, but unfortunately, in spite of having spent a year in Japan, I don’t know enough about what those should be. I apparently should have studied food a little more while I was there.

I made sure we ate some noodles for longevity (don’t bite or break them!). For dinner for the new year, I made Hainan Chicken and Rice, because it sounded delicious and had a simple ingredient list.

In spite of the simple ingredient list, I made a mess of my kitchen making this. First you poach a chicken. You set aside the chicken, and use the rendered chicken fat and stock in the rice. You also make dipping sauce(s) for the chicken. None of these steps are particularly difficult, but it does mean you’ll mess up a few dishes in the process. Or at least, that’s how I felt.

Hainan Chicken and Rice

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Soy and Cola Braised Pork Shoulder

Schnucks had boneless pork shoulders on sale for a while, so I stocked up. One of the things I wanted to do to one was make Soy and Cola Braised Pork Shoulder. I bought a bottle of full-sugar cola because I wanted to try this recipe – and if you cook with soda, you can’t use the diet stuff that I normally drink. You need the sugar/corn syrup from the soda for the recipe.

The recipe is simple. It says to use a bone-in pork butt, but I prefer boneless. You sear the pork roast in sesame oil. Remove it from the pot so you can add garlic and ginger, followed by the cola, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, and rice vinegar. You return the pork to the pot, put a lid on it, and braise it in the oven for about 2 hours, turning the pork roast occasionally so it all gets a chance to cook in the liquid.

At this point you remove the pork from the oven and from the pot. You strain off rendered fat, and simmer the remaining liquid to reduce it to about 2 cups (I guessed to reduce by half, which would probably be a little too much, now that I think about it).

Straining off rendered fat is difficult if you don’t have a specialty devise. I originally thought I could do it with a zipper bag… until that bag unsealed in the sink, draining away all our delicious sauce. That pork shoulder was delicious, but dry without the sauce. I tried the recipe a second time. This time, I cooked the food one day and refrigerated it overnight so the fat solidified and was easy to remove before reducing the sauce. Much better! I shredded the pork and returned it to the thickened sauce, then added some green onions to it.

Soy and Cola Braised Pork

This pork was delicious. It was sweet and salty, with tang from the vinegar. The green onions were nice in it, and I especially liked the way the pork and sauce mellowed when paired with the fresh taste of cucumber. I enjoyed the pork over rice, since the rice soaked up some of the sauce. This was an easy recipe; you need some time to make it, but it’s low-maintenance to make. I’d try it again, and maybe I’d try to adapt it for a slow cooker.

Beef-Broccoli Stir-fry

I made the Beef-Broccoli Stir-fry from Cooking Light a while ago. I haven’t done a lot of blogging recently, but I enjoyed the recipe so I still wanted to write a little about it.

My first experience with Chinese food was with Beef and Broccoli during my freshman year of college. Some friends and I were having food delivered, and I didn’t know what to order. At the time, I hadn’t experienced a wide range of food (like most of what I make and write about here), and I’m sure that the only non-American food I’d had was Mexican (and the extent of that might have been tacos – we didn’t dine out much when I was young). I asked for a recommendation from a Vietnamese-American friend who was getting (vegetarian) food, and he said that a lot of Americans liked beef and broccoli. I decided to give it a try, and it certainly was a safe bet for someone who was raised on meat and potatoes, who didn’t want anything excessively spicy.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the right choice for me. Even then I should have guessed, but I’m not really a plain, meat-and-potatoes kind of person. I like simple, straightforward flavors, but I also like spicy, and I like complex. I remember the beef and broccoli weighed down with the heavy taste of soy sauce. I was unimpressed. I like soy sauce and it has its uses, but those uses shouldn’t be pouring it over rice to flavor it (I don’t understand how anyone can do that; it’s so salty!) or making it the sole flavor in a dish. The entire thing left me believing that I didn’t like Chinese food, until I made a half soy – half lime juice chicken marinade a year later.

I decided I’d give beef and broccoli another try. This was an easy recipe to make – particularly because I recruited Alex as sous chef. Stir-fries like this are easy to make once you understand the basics of how they’re put together; I’ve had success when I’ve followed the instructions similar to those in this recipe. You make a marinade for your meat, and you make a sauce. Cook the meat, replace it with vegetables, add back the meat and sauce, and you’ve got dinner.

For this specific recipe, you make a simple marinade of soy sauce, white wine (the recipe calls for sherry, and I’ve seen some call for sake, which is rice wine), and sugar for the beef. You let it sit while you make the sauce for the stir-fry, which is more wine, soy sauce, beef broth, cornstarch, hoisin sauce, and Sriracha. I was able to make both of these sauces while Alex cut the beef and the broccoli, so if you have to cut all of your ingredients, it will take you longer.

Cooking: You saute the beef for 3 minutes and remove from pan. Saute ginger and garlic for 30 seconds, and then add broccoli and water. Cook for a few minutes (adding in green onions if you don’t forget them like I do), and add beef and broth mixture. Cook for 2 minutes or until slightly thickened. I served this over some Japanese rice I had already cooked and kept in the fridge.

Beef and Broccoli Stir-fry

Alex and I both really enjoyed this. The ginger and garlic gave it flavor and kept the dish from seeming heavy, and the Sriracha gave it heat without being too spicy. It had a nice, balanced flavor. If only it had tasted this good 10+ years ago. I’d definitely make this again, and you should give it a try too if you don’t already have a version you like.

Caramel Pork

Tonight for dinner I made Caramel Pork. This meal was quick, easy, and delicious, so I wanted to be sure to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind.

Before I roasted a pork loin yesterday, I cubed about a pound of it and set it aside for tonight’s dinner. I mention this specifically because it’s one thing I didn’t have to do tonight. I also think it’s a very efficient way to get cubed pork for dinner, as long as you don’t mind eating pork two nights in a row; you only get your hands dirty once this way. I also think it’s cheaper to buy the bigger roast and cut a pound or two off of it to cook later, rather than buy the meat specifically for the meal. I wish I’d started doing this year ago.

Before I started cooking the pork, I made a simple Asian broccoli slaw. I used the seasonings and proportions from the Radish-Squash Slaw (that was supposed to pair with the Caramel Pork, although the recipes aren’t linked online), but just tossed the dressing with a bag of broccoli slaw mix. I hate shredding vegetables, so this was money well spent. I didn’t have cilantro to add.

Once the slaw was made, I started on the pork. It’s made in three steps; first you cook the pork (about 5 minutes), then you add garlic and onion (about 2 minutes), and then you add the rest of the ingredients and cook for another 5 minutes while the liquid reduces. I had time to cut up the onion while the pork cooked, and just had time to grate ginger while the onion and garlic cooked with the pork.  I used half broth and half water, and full-sodium soy sauce. I omitted anchovies, and didn’t serve with lime. I didn’t make the rice as suggested, but just served the pork with a few green peas and a little Japanese rice I already had cooked.

Caramel Pork

This was a pretty good meal. The pork was sweet and a little spicy. The rice and slaw helped to balance the spiciness of the pork, which built up as you ate it. The sauce was good with the rice. I noticed the taste of the sesame oil most while I ate the slaw, but Alex mostly thought it seemed tart (from the vinegar). I don’t particularly like vinegar, personally, but it wasn’t overwhelming in this. It could have used the cilantro, and maybe a little ginger or red pepper if I was serving it on its own.

One of the best parts of making the pork was that the last 5 minutes of cooking time are hands-off; it builds in a little time to clean the kitchen before dinner! The entire meal was very quick to make (thanks to little cutting, using precooked rice, dicing the pork the day before, and using bagged slaw mix), and Alex and I both found it to be pretty satisfying. I’d definitely make this again.

Tonight’s dinner: Tori no kara-age

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, and I still have a backlog of recipes that I’d really like to write about, but I thought I would start off with something a little more immediate: tonight’s dinner, tori no kara-age, or Japanese-style fried chicken.

I just came back from a few days in Chicago, where I was able to go to Mitsuwa Marketplace, the Japanese supermarket up in Arlington Heights. If you’re in the Chicago area and like Japanese stuff or Japanese food (or just enjoy supermarkets in general), you should definitely go there. They’ve got Japanese books, cookware, a sake section, and a food court. The first time a friend took us there, it was a Saturday or a Sunday and the supermarket had a giant tuna. You just walked right in the front door, and you could buy a part of this fresh tuna, cut specifically for you. I grew up with tuna in cans, and so I had no idea that they were such big fish until then.

On Wednesday, I ate some tonkatsu in the food court, and then browsed the supermarket and wished that I lived in Chicago so that I could buy Japanese food every week. It (combined with all the coverage of the disasters in Japan in the news recently) made me nostalgic for my time in Japan. It was actually 10 years ago this August that I first went to Japan. I loved my time there.

This is a food blog, so let me just note that I loved the food, too. Tori no karaage was the first dish my host mom ever made for me – we ate it the night I moved in with my homestay family. My host mom was a fantastic cook, and this was the first of many delicious things she made for me.

Karaage is deep-fried but not difficult, and I’ve actually made this recipe a handful of times. I think it’s been 3 or 4 years since the last time, and I forgot about it until I saw it on a menu board in the food court this week.

This recipe serves two, but it would be easy to adjust it to feed one person or several. Prep is simple. Cut chicken breasts into bite-size pieces. Make sure they’re uniform so that they’ll cook evenly. Make your marinade of soy sauce, garlic, black pepper, and ginger – soy sauce is salty, so I never add extra salt to anything I add soy sauce to. The ginger is given in weight – 30 grams would be about a 1.5-2 inch piece of gingerroot. I actually only had half of much gingerroot as I needed. I did not grate the ginger or the garlic, but I did pulverize the ginger in a bullet blender to make it more paste-like.

After the chicken marinated, I dredged it in the flour-cornstarch mixture (corn flour is usually just corn starch). The chicken isn’t that wet since it’s soaked up all the marinade, and it coats easily without becoming gooey (with a few exceptions). I’ve fried the chicken on the stove in the past, but it’s really easiest if you have a deep fryer. If you do it on the stove, be sure to leave plenty of room at the top of the pan so your oil doesn’t overflow; keep your oil hot enough; and don’t overcrowd the pan. I would also suggest a fry or candy thermometer so you can make sure your oil stays at 350F. I fried about one chicken breast’s worth of meat at a time, 5 minutes per batch.

Tori no karaage (Japanese fried chicken)

Even though I only had half the ginger I needed for this, they still turned out pretty good. Some were crispier than others, and I don’t have a good explanation for this. Some of the pieces must have been a little more damp on the surface from the marinade than others were. Normally these would be an appetizer, and in the past I’ve served them with rice, miso soup, and a vegetable (like a salad or sauteed spinach with sesame). I think these would be a good introduction into deep frying, technique-wise. These are also a great introduction to Japanese food, since the garlic-ginger-soy combination is amazing. Definitely give these a try.

Sweet and Sour Chicken

I realize it’s been 2 weeks (!) since my last update. I’ve been busy! We went to Las Vegas last weekend (awesome trip, by the way), and I spent the week before and afterward getting all of my reading and homework done for the meteorology class I decided to take this semester. I honestly don’t remember if I cooked at all before we went to Las Vegas, and I made a huge pot of chili on Tuesday that I’ve been eating ever since (and it’s still not gone).

I did make something before then that I thought was worth writing about. I’m not even a fan of sweet and sour chicken – I never order it – but the Cooking Light Sweet and Sour Chicken from their January 2011 issue looked very simple and potentially tasty. It wasn’t too high in carbs, which meant that Alex could eat it with me, and possibly eat my portion if I didn’t like it.

It was a pretty simple recipe to make. We cut chicken breasts into strips, sauteed them, and set them aside. Then I mixed water (instead of broth), apricot preserves, and soy sauce in the skillet and brought it to a boil. After a minute, I stirred in lime juice and chile paste. I poured it over the chicken.

It was over 2 weeks ago that I made this, and I have no pictures. It was pretty tasty. I’m not too big on sweet and sour meals, so it’s the first sweet and sour chicken that I’ve ever liked. I think that’s because it was a little spicy too. I wish that I had cooked the sauce with the chicken, instead of pouring it over, because I personally would have enjoyed this a little more if it had thickened up and cooked into the chicken. I was pleased enough with it that I might try it again sometime.