Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Sundried tomato couscous

I grew to like couscous during my time in the UK. It makes a nice change from potatoes, pasta and rice and also makes a lovely salad during warmer days. It also packs well in lunch boxes (being a filling and dense carbohydrate), making it particularly suitable for bento.

For those who have not come across them before, couscous are small granules made from semolina wheat. It is the primary staple in North and West Africa (e.g. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) but has also become quite popular in countries like France due to immigrant influence. Traditional couscous takes a while to cook but the couscous sold in most Western supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried, making them very quick and easy to prepare (great for dinner in a hurry!). Just add boiling water or stock to the couscous, cover tightly for 5 minutes and then fluff with a fork. Properly cooked couscous should be light and fluffy, not gummy or gritty, (usually from too little/much water or steaming for too long/short). You can add add a little butter or olive oil for flavour, mix well and it is ready to serve.


Other than the basic version above, couscous can be dressed with up various ingredients depending on what you have on hand (e.g. lemon juice and zest, chopped parsley or coriander/cilantro, chopped red peppers, chopped cucumber, raisins). This couscous dish is made with sundried tomatoes, another ingredient that I have grown to love during my time in the UK. While they are a staple of Italian kitchens, they are not that common in North America and tend to be used in chef's kitchens. Having said that, they are easy to find in grocers and supermarkets these days. Sundried tomatoes has a lovely concentrated flavour that is great for pastas, salads and soups. I tend to use sundried tomatoes packed in oil that can be used straight out of the jar. Once opened, the tomatoes are good for about a month, but make sure that they are covered in olive oil (top up if necessary). When you finish the sundried tomatoes, don't throw out the oil! It is packed with of flavour from the tomatoes and often with garlic and other herbs too. It makes a great dressing for salads and pastas. If you buy packets of sundried tomatoes, they need to be rehydrated in hot water for about 30 minutes before use. Reserve the soaking liquid and add them to the recipe. If you are using sundried tomatoes in a soup or stew, just add them in without soaking.

Ingredients (serve 2):

2/3 cup or 155g couscous
1 cup/250ml hot chicken/vegetable stock or water
3 pieces of sundried tomatoes in oil, chopped (or snipped into small pieces with kitchen scissors)
2 tbsp sundried tomato oil
Handful of fresh parsley, chopped (optional)

1. Place the couscous in a large bowl or pan. Pour in boiling water or stock and cover with a tight fitting lid or cling film. Leave to steam for 5 minutes.
2. Fluff up the couscous with a fork. Add the sundried tomatoes, soaking olive oil and parsley. Mix well and serve.

This is the bento I made last week with roast chicken, steamed green beans tossed in olive oil and cherry tomatoes. The chicken was leftover from dinner when I made oven roasted chicken legs. I then placed the chicken breast pieces alongside the legs during the last 30 minutes of cooking time (to prevent them from overcooking).


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Thursday, 23 April 2009

Cantonese watercress soup 西洋菜汤

In an earlier post, I have written about the special place in my Cantonese culinary heart for slow-cooked soup, or lo foh tong (老火湯). This watercress soup (西洋菜汤) was one of the earliest soups I made when I found, much to my delight, that I could buy watercress easily from the supermarket. It took me a while to figure out that they were the same watercress that my mother used for soups, because they looked nothing like the bunches of long stalks and delicate leaves that I remember.

As watercress are mainly used in salads in the UK (they impart a delicious peppery flavour to a leafy salad mix), only the little leaves and tender stalks attached were sold. Rather than being sold with the other vegetables, they also tend to be found in the packaged salad section. The watercress that I have found here in Vancouver seems more conventional, stalks and all (less waste!).

Watercress soup 西洋菜汤

This photo was taken very early in the cooking process. As you can see, the watercress was still looking very pretty and green. After a few hours of simmering, the delicate vegetable turned brown and limp. Not to worry. Although it looks rather unattractive, all the goodness of the watercress has gone into the soup, which does pack a lot of flavour.

Ingredients (serve 4-6):

150g lean pork
2-3 small pieces of dried cuttlefish or dried octupus (optional)
150g watercress, washed and drained
2 dried honey dates (蜜枣)
6 dried red dates (红枣)
1.5 litres water
2 tbsp Chinese wolfberry/goji berry (枸杞子) (optional)
Salt to taste

1. Place the pork in a large bowl or pot and pour boiling water over it. Let sit for a few minutes. Rinse with clean water. This step removes excess fat, any strange 'porky' flavour and makes for a clearer and cleaner tasting soup.
2. Place the pork, dried cuttlefish/octupus (if using), watercress, honey dates, red dates and boiling water in a large pot. Bring back to the boil and then turn the heat right down to a low simmer. The soup will be ready in about 2 hours, but I like to cook mine long and slow for at least 3-4 hours.
3. If using Chinese wolfberry/goji berry, add them during the final hour of cooking. Cooking goji berry for too long imparts a slightly sour taste to the soup which some people do not like. If you do not mind, just add them to all other ingredients at the beginning.
4. About 5-10 minutes before serving, season to taste with some salt.

Note: The dried cuttlefish/octupus are optional but they are the star ingredient of many Cantonese slow cooked soups as they add a lot of depth and flavour. If you can get hold of any (usually at medical halls or dried goods stores in Chinatown), all well and good. But if you can't buy any or don't fancy the idea of those ingredients, you can safely skip them and still end up with very tasty and nutritious soup.

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Friday, 17 April 2009

After a break from food and bento

I had two wisdom teeth taken out last week, which killed any cooking or bento plans. I did make one or two bento for the husband but he mostly just bought his own lunch at work as I was really not in the mood to think about food very much. For the first two days, yogurt and cold tofu (no toppings, just a drizzle of soy sauce) were my friends, along with chocolate milk (which I didn't remember having since I was 8 or 9). It was almost exciting when I graduated to mashed carrots. Then it was on to (cooled down) soups, congee, stew and increasingly solid food.

I am recovering well and eating just about normal now. Case in point: we had buffulo steak two days ago, which I shall blog about in due course. But being off work for most of last week meant having lots to catch up on this week at work, thus the lack of attention to this food blog.

While I try to shuffle my priorities around, here are some bento made before my liquid/soft food diet:

This was made with some new pasta shapes that I bought. We had tuna and sundried tomatoes pasta salad, a bit of parsley garnish, sliced red peppers and skewers of grapes.


I pack sandwich bento about once or twice a week, mainly because they are so quick and easy, offers some variety from rice or pasta-based bento, and err because they are quick and easy. This bento had roast beef and cucumber sandwich (tilted up just for photo), skewers of grapes and cheese and cherry tomatoes underneath.


This lunch was basically more of what we had for dinner. Bread, selection of Swiss and Italian cheeses, grapes, cherry tomatoes and homemade vegetable soup. The soup was made following the same recipe as this minestrone soup except without meatballs or pasta shapes. Thank goodness for the cute flag picks to decorate an otherwise plain looking bento.


I also added chopped celery in with the diced carrot during the cooking process. I am trying to wean my husband on to celery... First by using them in making stock, and now by chopping them into small pieces in soups to render them not as visible or obvious. Perhaps one day I might actually be able to use them in a pie or even a stir fry... :p

This picture below shows my 'standard' rice-meat-veg bento: Baby bok choy in oyster sauce, ginger and spring onion pork, cherry tomatoes, and rice. Simple but delicious and filling.


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Friday, 3 April 2009

Mixed vegetable stir fry with vegetarian (mock) duck

A dish of mixed vegetable stir fry is a good way to get a variety of vegetables into your diet, and a great way to use up bits and pieces of vegetables languishing in the crisper drawer of your fridge. A red pepper here, a too-small head of broccoli there, add half a carrot, a few mushrooms and a handful of mange tout/snow peas, and you have a great side dish to go with dinner.

Vegetarian stir fry in oyster sauce

If you are serving this as a main or vegetarian dish, you may wish to up the protein content by adding tofu. In that case, be sure to use firm tofu to avoid having a scrambled mess in your stir fry. Other popular ingredients in this dish are dried lily buds and dried wood ear fungus. Like dried shitake mushrooms, they are first soaked in water to reconstitute them, drained and then added to the wok. Feel free to skip any ingredients that I list below or add or replace anything as you see fit, depending on what you have on hand.

Dried lily buds and woodear fungus

One ingredient that I do like to use, but not easy to find outside of Asia, is vegetarian duck or mock duck. My mother uses it for her mixed vegetarian dishes so it reminds me of home in some ways. Mock duck (or chicken or other 'meats') is made out of gluten or tofu but somehow has the texture of the meat, in that it would tear into 'shreds' and the top layer of 'skin' has little bumps too. Very cleverly done. This canned version is stewed in a soy sauce based marinade and adds a lot of flavour to the stir fry. My mum tends to buy the Companion (良友) brand. I managed to locate it when I was living in Nottingham but have not seen it at my grocers here in Vancouver. Admittedly I have not looked that hard in Chinatown and elsewhere. I also like the Companion brand mock abalone (斋鲍鱼) which for some reason doesn't taste anything like abalone but since I don't actually like abalone that is not a problem! And that I have managed to find at my nearby grocers.

Mock vegetarian duck

Ingredients (serves 2-3):

Oil for cooking
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small head of broccoli, cut into small florets
1 small carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 red pepper, sliced
5-6 dried shitake mushrooms (or use button mushrooms)
1 small handful of dried wood ear fungus (木耳)
1 can vegetarian duck, drained
Half a block of firm/extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into cubes
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp corn flour mixed with 2 tbsp water
1 tsp sesame oil

1. Soak the dried shitake mushrooms and wood ear fungus, if using, in hot water for 15 minutes. Gently squeeze out excess water, slice the mushrooms thinly and tear the wood ear fungus into bite sized pieces. Reserve the mushroom soaking water.

2. If using tofu, it helps to pan fry them first to prevent them from crumbling in the stir fry. The crisp coating also add good flavour. Heat some oil in a pan or wok . Lightly coat the cubes with corn flour and pan fry for a few minutes until golden. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

3. Clean and wipe the pan or wok (normally I just wipe it out with paper towels). Heat 1 tbsp of oil in the wok on medium-high heat. When hot, add garlic and fry for 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the peppers and stir fry for 1 minute. Then add sliced carrot and mushrooms and cook for another 2 minutes.

4. Add the broccoli, wood ear fungus, vegetarian duck and mix well. Add oyster sauce and light sauce sauce and stir to mix.

5. Add the mushroom soaking water or just plain water (about 100ml) to the wok. Then drizzle over the corn flour mixture and mix well. Continue to heat and stir the dish until the sauce thickens. Finally, add the tofu and sesame oil, stir gently and serve.

As mentioned in a previous post regarding tips on wok cooking, pre-cook dense vegetables first (e.g. broccoli) by cutting them into small florets and blanching them in hot water for a few minutes. Whatever vegetables you choose to use, ingredients that take the longest to cook should also go into the wok first, while the most delicate item (e.g. tofu) should go in last.

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