Monday, November 28, 2011

Another Asia Night

As is often his wont, my boyfriend decided to make stir fry for game night dinner this past Sunday. Since I don't do pork or beef easily, he made chicken stir fry and asked other people to bring complimentary items. My roommate brought rice, and I decided to swing by Trader Joe's and pick up some of their frozen chicken gyoza.

Trader Joe's gyoza and I have a rocky history. My first roommates in California raved about how delicious it was, so I naturally gave it a try. I was disappointed. Granted, the gyoza I was used to from Japan was not chicken, but I had since bought gyoza from the Chinese markets in Kalamazoo that were chicken and just as tasty. (Incidentally, if you would like to read about the difference between the original Chinese jiaozi and Japan's variation gyoza, click here.)

I generally love Trader Joe's. They're cheap, avoid the added chemical crap that has infested our daily food, and have offerings that I just can't find anywhere else. I am far more adventurous with food now than I was before Trader Joe's. All true. However, I dislike most of their Asian cuisine offerings (though their mandarin chicken really is the bomb), and can't help feeling they consistently fall short of authentic Japanese food. 

So while living in Mountain View, I was more content to walk the ten minutes to the nearby Chinese market on Castro St to buy my beloved gyoza. I moved away from Mountain View, though, and have often had little alternative to buying gyoza from Trader Joe's. I don't know if my tastes changed or the recipe did, but I am now decently fond of the chicken gyoza from Trader Joe's and can usually get it to cook the way that I want it.

Except for Sunday. I wasn't using a stove that I am used to, nor was I using my usual cooking oil or pan, any of which could have been contributing factors to the gyoza not browning no matter how hard I tried. I still have a bag and a half of the dear little dumplings in my freezer, so obviously I will get a chance to cook them again. Next time, I think I will take Wikipedia's advice and boil the gyoza first, then put them in a fry pan with oil. I think I can get them crispier that way. 

Another thing that I don't particularly like that Trader Joe's sells is their gyoza sauce. It's too spicy for me and just doesn't, in my opinion, go well with the gyoza (though would probably pair well with jiaozi). So I made my own! Most of the recipes I found had the same ingredients as Trader Joe's, so they wouldn't do. I decided to be simple and mix together soy sauce and rice vinegar. In the past I have sweetened soy sauce with sugar, but it was fine without sugar this time, and tasted pretty authentic to me. (It was closest to what I remember having with my gyoza in Japan.) 

Despite its non-crispiness, everyone at game night ate the gyoza and said it was good (though roomie was sad at the lack of crisp, as was I), so at least it performed its function. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Open Season on White Chicken Chili

This has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, but everything to do with the season. It's getting cold! There has been plenty of soup making, but I've lately started craving something similar: white chicken chili. If I have even ever made white chicken chili, it's been a very long time. My friends and I used to get it from the soup cafe that sprung up every Wednesday on the campus of Western Michigan University, then later we sometimes made it ourselves with ground turkey. (Making it white turkey chili, an entirely different chili altogether.)

After getting off work tonight, I grabbed an onion, a couple cans of white kidney beans, diced chilies, a frozen bag of pre-cooked grilled chicken strips (worth it when you're short on time), and a bag of shredded Mexican blend cheeses. I wasn't sure of all the ingredients, but that sounded like a good start. Even after checking a few recipes online, I found I didn't have all the required ingredients, so I just went with that I had.

First things first, I made cornbread from a boxed mix. (Using my new mixer. <3)

Then, in my large frying pan, I combined half the onion, then diced, and generous sprinkles of ground cumin, garlic powder, and dried parsley (because I mysteriously don't own oregano) in a bit of olive oil. After that browned a bit, I added the two cans of diced chilies In a separate pot, I put two cans of water and a packet of condensed chicken broth and brought it to a light boil. To the broth I added the two cans of white kidney beans, drained and rinsed. While that simmered, I ripped up the thawed chicken strips and added them to the chilies mixture.
I added half a can of water to the beans and broth because it didn't look like enough liquid. That, of course, made it apparent that I needed the Big Pot, so I pulled that out and combined into it the pot of beans and broth and the skillet of chicken, chilies, etc.

I don't like spicy things, so the only kick in this chili was from the green chilies. After scooping a square of cornbread into a bowl, ladling in some chili, then sprinkling shredded cheese over-top, I was pretty pleased with myself. And the taste was pretty much exactly what I was looking for.

Thus ended a many months long craving.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving Special (Early Edition)

Since I was informed that my family is having a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year, and we've been getting in all kinds of Thanksgiving fare at work, I decided to make a small Thanksgiving-esque dinner for myself and my roommate Kimmy a couple weeks early. Also, this is my 100th blog entry, so I wanted to make it something big!

1/4 cup butter, 4 cups water,
seasoning packet
The first thing I did was buy a box of Trader Joe's cornbread stuffing and a tub of stuffing starter mix, which has cut up celery and onions with herbs mixed in. The box of cornbread stuffing also has an herb packet, so it was very herby and delicious when I mixed it all together in the pan. The steps for the stuffing casserole went like this:
  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. Pour 4 cups of water, ¼ cup of butter, and the cornbread mix's seasoning packet into a glass bowl and microwave for about 5 minutes until butter is melted
  3. Spread cornbread croutons and stuffing starter mix into a large casserole dish, mixing carefully
  4. Pour microwaved liquid mix over dry mix in casserole dish, mixing very carefully until croutons are moistened
  5. Bake for around 35 minutes
croutons & stuffing starter mix
I didn't have the money to buy turkey, sadly, so instead I took six chicken tenders out of the freezer, placed them in a frying pan of butter, parsley, celery salt, and garlic powder simmering in some water. When the chicken was cooked through, I added flour to the broth to thicken it into a delicious gravy.  

chicken, 1/4 cup butter, water, garlic powder,
parsley, celery salt

Happy Thanksgiving!
I do believe this is one of my tastier dinner creations. With the addition of the baked acorn squash that I had made previously, I felt I had a solid, well-rounded meal. The chicken tenders provided more than enough protein for my day, and squash is high in antioxidants. (Also vitamin A, so expectant mothers, please take note and monitor your intake carefully.) 

Since stuffing is my favorite Thanksgiving dish, the leftovers did not last long in my refrigerator, alas! I guess that means I will just have to make more. Oh darn! Next time, I may add some Michigan-grown dried cherries for my sweet tooth and in honor of my home state, which not only supplies most of the tart cherries in the US, but squash, as well. (Mm, I live in a tasty state.) 

One more blog entry before it is Thanksgiving for reals! I wonder what I should make next.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Acorn on the Outside, Pumpkin on the Inside


So many weeks ago that I've lost track, I bought an acorn squash because I remembered my mother baking them when I was growing up and they were tasty. I've never cooked squash before, so I didn't know that this squash was horribly unripe. Thus the waiting began... Finally, I was able to cut into the darn thing and my quest for learning how to cook this thing began.

I'd been given all kinds of advice from friends, coworkers, and customers on how to do thing, which, of course, I promptly forgot when confronted with the task. I figured the best course of action was to follow the instructions that the squash had written on it. This meant preheating the oven to 350 degrees F, then pulling out the big knife to persuade the squash to freaking be cut in half already. 

Once the splitting open was accomplished (the squash, not me), I was mildly surprised to find its innards looked and smelled exactly like the pumpkins that I had carved for Halloween. I wondered briefly if I baked the acorn squash seeds and salted them would they taste as good as pumpkin seeds, but decided against that and instead scooped them into the trash. 

The sticker on the squash instructed me to assemble brown sugar, pecans, and butter (which I left out on the counter to soften while the squash baked). I didn't have pecans, but I did have slivered almonds and walnut baking pieces. I decided on the walnuts because they are closer to pecans than almonds are, and should soften up nicely in the brown sugar and butter goo. 

Placing the two squash halves into a large baking dish shell-side out, I poured in a little water and put the squash int he oven. 45 minutes later, it was finished and I flipped the squash halves over then dabbed butter, brown sugar, and a sprinkle of walnut pieces into the hollow cavities. I waited for them to cool a bit before scooping some into a bowl and mixing it all together. 

The flavor was delicious!! I totally understand why acorn squash is often used as a main dish of Thanksgiving gatherings. The squash was so naturally sweet that it probably didn't need the help of the brown sugar, but melted butter over warm squash to me is absolutely mouthwatering. The walnuts served to enhance the innate nuttiness of the squash, added some texture and protein. 

I believe squash has just made its way into my Thanksgiving feast as a staple, and I will definitely be baking squash again in the future. I am anxious to see what else I can do with it, and also to try the other varieties out there. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (Gluten Free Corn Stuffing)

Continuing with the Thanksgiving theme, I thought I would next turn my attention to gluten free stuffing. Since I've already made gluten free paczki, I figure gluten free stuffing has got to be a snap!

First, I went to Trader Joe's and checked their cornbread stuffing mix. Sadly, premade cornbread stuffing is chock full of gluten. I didn't think it would be that easy, but I at least had to give it a try. Next, I went to the internet where there are a large number of gluten free recipes.

The easiest thing seems to be to simply use gluten free bread, like the blocky brown rice bread I often see as the gluten free offerings at many grocery stores. Not awful, but not awesome, at least in my opinion. (I haven't tried, but I'm fairly sure I could hammer a nail into the wall with one of those things.) Still, this isn't a bad way to go. Just cut up the bread into bite size pieces, add some chopped celery and onions, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, or just follow a recipe like this one here at Serious Eats.

My absolute favorite kind of stuffing, though, is cornbread stuffing. And corn is naturally gluten free! That is where this recipe comes in. Though honestly, there are a number of items that I would leave out, like any and all nuts, and I am really not sure about the hard boiled eggs. Still, it's simple, and most importantly corn stuffing-- I mean gluten free. (Gluten free corn stuffing.)

Stuffing is another thing that is easily made vegan, and happily so. The first time I ever had sausage in stuffing was during a tasting at work, and it was so disgusting that I had to spit it out. Let me tell you, I was one sad panda. I love stuffing! How could anything make it so terrible? But I am assured that sausage is a popular additive, and I respect other people's tastes even when I do not share them. If that is your thing, and you are trying to go vegan or just vegetarian, there are plenty of usable soy-based sausages out there.

I don't believe in soy-based fake meat, however, so I am now wondering how Trader Joe's potato-based masala veggie burgers would work in a vegetarian stuffing in place of sausage. It'd probably be pretty tasty! One of these days, I may have to give it a try just for the sake of curiosity, but for now, I am perfectly happy with my gluten free corn stuffing. Yum! 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Side Adventure

I plan to devote November's blog updates to alternative Thanksgiving dinner dishes, but I had to take a quick break before fully diving in and tell everyone about this fabulous restaurant that Kimmy and I stumbled upon called Pilar's Tamales on Liberty at Stadium. The place is tiny, but uncluttered, with fun festive colors and an El Salvadoran flag on the wall. Plus the staff couldn't be friendlier!

The menu is simple, decently priced, and packed with delicious options. Kimmy ordered the special #2 which was comprised of one pupusa, curtido, casamiento, and fried plantains. I also got the curtido because I ordered two chicken pupusas and refreshing hibiscus iced tea to drink. Included with her meal, Kimmy got horchata. Both lunches were around $10 each.

Okay, here is a breakdown of what all those words mean for those who, like me until relatively recently, are not familiar with Salvadoran food.
  • Pupusa: thick, handmade tortillas filled with cheese and occasionally meat and/or refried beans
  • Curtido: fermented cabbage slaw in vinegar traditionally served with pupusas
  • Casamiento: fried rice and beans

Horchata takes a little more in-depth explanation. It is a beverage with dozens of variations in many cultures all over the world, but I am going to deal specifically with Mexico, since that is the region Kimmy is used to, and El Salvador. In Mexico, horchata is basically rice milk with cinnamon and occasionally vanilla. In El Salvador, it is primarily made not from rice, but morro seeds. “Other common ingredients include ground cocoa, cinnamon, sesame seeds, nutmeg, tigernuts and vanilla. Other nuts that may also be used include peanuts, almonds and cashews. Because of these ingredients, the horchata is usually strained before serving” (Wikipedia).

If you've never tried Salvadoran cuisine, or are homesick for SoCal, and are in the Ann Arbor area, I highly suggest a trip to Pilar's Tamales on Liberty. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dairy Free Green Bean Casserole

I can't believe it's November already! In a job like mine, that means one thing: Thanksgiving. Since I haven't made anything new lately, I thought that I would kick off the season with a recipe I did two Thanksgivings ago.

One of the guest's at my Thanksgiving dinner was lactose intolerant, so I decided to see if I could make a green bean casserole milk free. The usual way of making green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup would not work, so I had to search harder for a new recipe. I found it on the Food Network's website, Alton Brown's Best Ever Green Bean Casserole.

If you read the ingredient list, you will see that it calls for half and half. Obviously, this wouldn't do, but I knew that Trader Joe's sold a dairy free soy creamer, so I picked some up, gathered my ingredients together, and dove right in.

Making green bean casserole from scratch is really not as complicated as it may seem. I did cheat a little by skipping the French onions from scratch, using pre-made canned onions instead, but the point was not to make green bean casserole from scratch, but to make it dairy free, which the canned onions were. I also used a butter substitute rather than actual butter.

As I said, this process was really very simple, and didn't take much time at all. (Not nearly what I feared it might, anyway.) The resulting casserole was heavy on the mushrooms, which I found wonderful! But I am a huge fan of mushrooms, so if you don't like mushrooms, maybe green bean casserole from scratch is not for you.

But! If you ever need to make a dairy free or vegan green bean casserole, this is totally the recipe for you. Just substitute vegetable broth for chicken, and it's as vegan as you please.