Favorite Gadgets and Cookware

Let’s face it – there are a few kitchen utensils or cookware items that really make a difference when you’re cooking ethnic food:

Mortar: I can’t imagine trying to cook Southeast Asian food without a good mortar (and pestle, of course). I like the very heavy stone one that I bought at a local Thai grocery. It holds about 2 cups – not that you ever grind that much, but it’s nice to have the room when you’re mashing things. They also sell eathenware mortars with wooden pestles, but if you come down with the pestle at the wrong angle, you can crack them. Still, they’re an inexpensive option. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can grind things in your food processor or blender, buy it’s laborious, and the texture is not the same.

Rice Steamer: I cook a lot of Lao food, so a stove-top rice steamer is indispensable for me (the Laotians eat glutinous rice, which is always steamed over simmering water). I also use my rice steamer to re-constitute left-over regular white rice. A Lao or Thai rice steamer is a two part item – an aluminum bottom to hold the water, and a woven bamboo top to hold the rice. You can substitute any other type of two-part steamer, with the top part lined with cheesecloth to hold the rice.

Paella Pan: Paella is so easy to make, and turns out so well if you use a paella pan, that (imho) it makes a very useful addition to your pots and pans collection. You can make paella in a skillet set in the oven, if you insist.

Wok: I hope everyone have a wok by now! I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely indispensable, but it does make stir-frying a whole lot easier. I use one that I bought in Chinatown. Sorry, but the teflon-coated ones I see for sale in fancy cookware shops are not the thing to use. The whole point of stir-frying is to use high heat for a short time – and you can’t heat teflon to the very high temperatures called for in Asian cooking. So buy a cast iron wok, and season it – it’s worth the time to do it right. Here’s a link that says it all: http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/features/wokcare.html

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It’s Not Just Sushi

I live in a sushi-loving town. Oddly enough, it’s Chicago. A lot has changed in the past 30 years in the former home of the Stockyards, Hog-Butcher to the World. Back in the 70’s, when I was in college, I tried to get a classmate to eat a piece of raw tuna sashimi. He recoiled in horror. I’ve since lost touch with that guy, but I’m willing to bet that he’s currently scarfing down sushi and sashimi on a regular basis with the rest of the Baby Boomers and Yuppies.

It’s easy, amidst the sea of nigiri and makimono, to forget that there’s more to Japanese cuisine than raw fish and vinegared rice. My own love of Japanese food began with noodles eaten at a Japanese dive on north Clark Street (which used to be the heart of a big  Japanese community back in the 50’s). Now most of the Japanese restaurants along that stretch of Clark Street are sushi parlors. There are very few of the old places left, and that’s a shame. A few of our favorite recipes from the “cooked cuisine” of Japanare: Sukiyaki, Carrot Kimpira and Yams in White Miso Sauce. Look for them on the Japanese Cuisine page.

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Barbeque Season!

Barbeque season is almost upon us. It’s true that in our household, barbeque season could be any day that it isn’t actually raining or snowing, but when the temperature starts creeping toward 70 – that’s when we really start dusting off the Weber!

Almost anything tastes better grilled – that’s our credo. We have come a long way from the days when it was considered daring to push the hamburgers to one side and grill some bratwurst. Now we throw all sorts of things on the barbie, from Japanese salt-broiled salmon to Ga Nuong (Vietnamese barbequed chicken) to  barbequed corned beef brisket (okay – it’s not Asian, but it’s sooo delicious).

Today it’s supposed to rain – but just wait until the weekend!

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Fantasy Restaurants

Maybe you’re like me, and dream sometimes of opening a restaurant. I actually realize that it would be the worst thing I could do with my life – I’ve worked in restaurants and know that running one is not unalloyed fun – but it’s nice to fantasize.

And what type of restaurant would it be, you might ask. Well, sometimes it’s a Chinese restaurant. I live in Chicago, which is not a good Chinese restaurant town. There was a brief flare-up of Chinese-dining excitement back in the early ’70’s, when “Mandarin” cuisine was first introduced – but since then, things have not gone well. There are now only a handful of good Chinese restaurants in town (and a few more that are pretty far outside of town) – none of them anything like the old original, The Dragon Inn, which combined new and exciting food with a white-tablecloth ambience.

These days, if we want an outstanding Chinese meal, we have to cook it ourselves. Here’s a favorite dish that I’ve never seen in a restaurant – my adaptation of a recipe from “The Chinese People’s Cookbook, by Mai Leung:

Sliced Beef in Black Bean Sauce on “Two Sides Brown” 

And another favorite:

Mapo Tofu (Pork and Tofu with Hot Bean Sauce)

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Fantasy Restaurant #2

Sometimes my Fantasy restaurant is Lao. Chicago is home to quite a few Lao people, but no Lao restaurants. The closest we get are some Issan dishes in some of our Thai restaurants. So, we have to cook it ourselves – and fortunately we can. In the late 70’s we sponsored a family of Lao refugees, and I learned Lao cooking from them. Naturally, there were some limitations to how authentically they could reproduce their traditional dishes – many herbs and meats routinely used were not available in this country (no dried buffalo skin, for instance). So the Lao food I learned to cook is a bit different than it would be in Laos – it’s the cooking of the Lao diaspora, I guess you could say.

Here’s a recipe for my favorite Lao soup:

Kaopuhn Sai Nam (Chicken and Coconut Milk Soup with Noodles and Cabbage)

Also,

Laab Kai (Chopped Chicken Salad)

These crispy Spring Rolls go nicely with Laab Kai or Kaopuhn:

 Pan Gai Yoh (Fried Spring Rolls)

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