Thursday, September 5, 2013

Super Easy Pickled/Marinated Carrots and Daikon (AKA Vietnamese do chua or Japanese red and white namasu)

Homemade namasu carrots and daikon / do chua on my kitchen counter

Here's a super easy recipe for pickled/marinated carrots and daikon (Japanese white radish).  It is what Japanese call kōhaku ("red and white," with orange categorized as a kind of red) namasu ("raw vinegar," with "raw" referring to the uncooked vegetables and "vinegar" referring to what flavors them and alters their chemistry) 紅白生酢 .  It is also more or less the same thing as Vietnamese do chua, one of the delicious things inserted in French bread (albeit baked with rice flour) to make banh mi sandwiches. in banh mi, West Coast Guy (WCG) likes namasu /do chua with rice, and to eat it with some kind of meat or fish (see tilapia recipe below).  But it is great on toast or crackers with some cheese, for example chèvre (goat cheese).  Whenever I make these veggies (using local small, Hmong farmer versions of daikon so far), and share them with others (non-Japanese, non-Vietnamese), they eat a lot of it....  It is very good.

Here's a way to do make it:

Buy what in English is called "seasoned gourmet rice vinegar," made by Marukan or some other company.  The Japanese says, "sushi su," which means sushi vinegar.  This is because it is rice vinegar to which they have added some salt and sugar.  This is "whole food" stuff (as I recall, having used up my last bottle a couple days ago to prepare the vegetables pictured above): just vinegar, salt, and some sugar.  It is the formula suitable for flavoring rice to be used in making sushi.

The next super simple step: put julie-anned carrots and diakon into some kind of container.  I use freezer, microwave, and dishwasher safe sealable plastic ones.  Then pour the vinegar, covering the veggies.  Next, put it into the fridge, and wait a while.

After a few hours,  the carrots and daikon will very much absorb the flavor from the vinegar, etc.  After a day or two, it will take on a more pickle-like taste and fragrance.

Note: if you don't have, cannot buy, or run out of "seasoned gourmet vinegar" (you can buy it at most grocery stores, even in La Crosse), you can just add some sweetener and some salt to vinegar.  It is that simple.  When I ran out - not having quite enough - recently,I added some agave syrup and salt to some un-seasoned rice vinegar, and it tasted great.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

La Crosse Food Cart Boom?

You know you live in a small town when two of something constitutes a "boom":

Cooking With Tofu I: Don't Fear the Tofu
Tofu is coagulated soy bean milk pressed into blocks; it is sometimes referred to as soy bean curd.  In East and Southeast Asia it is a common food, where although associated with vegetarian Buddhist monks and nuns, the vast majority of omnivorous populations eat it as as a "normal" food.  In fact tofu dishes are often flavored by small amounts of animal products such as bits of pork or fish stock (animal proteins were traditionally a luxury and the modest inhabitants of the non-West are often bemused by Westerners who can afford to eat them but choose not to do so); it is - by the way - difficult to be a strict vegetarian in urban (East and Southeast) Asia, especially if one eats out at all.

Tofu is sometimes called something like meat from the fields because it has long been recognized as a source of high quality protein.  In fact, soy products are some of the very few vegetarian/vegan/vegetable sources of the complete set of essential amino acids that we all need.  Some say it is flavorless and it is indeed not strong in that department, but it does in fact have a subtle flavor.  Nonetheless, it also takes on the flavors one adds to it rather well, absorbing seasonings, sauces, broths, etc., well.  It is very versatile, and thus fun to cook with.  It is almost impossible to overcook, which is conversely very possible with most animal sources of protein.

Of particular note is that tofu comes in a variety of textures, densities, or levels of hardness.  In the US - where one can purchase packaged tofu in most supermarkets - there is generally soft, firm, and extra firm.  For most cooking applications, firm and extra firm are most appropriate.  Soft is good for salads and eating uncooked with some kind of sauce.  People use it blended to make sauces, deserts, etc. 

(Note: Tofu is available in the La Crosse area at Woodman's, the Co-op, Hmong supermarkets, and Festival.  However, the tofu at Festival is inappropriately and oddly EXPENSIVE.  West Coast Guy [WCG] suspects this is because whoever makes such decisions for Festival unwisely categorizes tofu as "health food," and thus associates it with the generally higher income people who have the luxury to buy items categorized in that way.  The long and short of it is that unless one has "money to burn," it is better to buy tofu elsewhere.)

Hiyakko Tofu
Kimchi Tofu

 There are innumerable ways to cook/prepare tofu, and WCG has tried many of them.  Examples common in Japan that don't require cooking include kimchi tofu, which is Korean style pickled cabbage and other vegetables on top of cold soft tofu, and hiyakko tofu, which is soft tofu usually topped with katsuo (dried bonito fish) shavings, shoyū (soy sauce), and green onions, etc. If one is hungry and wants a simple tasty protein-heavy dish, WCG recommends slicing up some soft tofu and pouring on some sauce: soy, sriracha, tabasco, flavored vinegar, whatever.  (Ponzu sauce works exceptionally well - available at Woodman's in a bottle) One can add green onions, tomatoes, pickles, etc., too.  This tastes good with rice or alone.
Mābō dōfu teishoku (set meal) in Japan
Common cooked tofu dishes in East Asia include Mápó dòufu, a  Sichuan (Szechuan) Chinese dish that is very popular in Japan, where it is called mābō dōfu.  This is a spicy dish that usually includes chiles, garlic, minced pork, and soy bean paste.  Another dish in Japanese is called buta dōfu, which simply means pork tofu.  WCG's mom used to make this as an every day dish.

Buta Dōfu (Somebody else's mom's (or auntie's) recipe)

The most common way WCG cooks tofu is in a pan or skillet.  This generally means a kind of stir fry, cooking the tofu with onions, carrots, garlic, and or other vegetables, along with a mixture of seasonings balancing salty, spicy, sweet, and perhaps sour flavors.

Recently, WCG's culinary experiments have led to the realization that cooking the f&#^ out of tofu leads to good results.  Again, it is almost impossible to overcook the stuff, and when browned to the point of almost blackening, the tofu undergoes caramelization, the maillard reaction, or something like that.  The end result is that it tastes good.  Another method WCG has been experimenting with is marinating the tofu for hours before cooking it.  The marinade can consist of a variety of ingredients, but the WCG goal is to achieve - again - something of a balance of flavors including at least salty and sweet, and often spicy plus sour.

Ikeda Kikunae
Actually, WCG's goal with savory cooking is to achieve or find what in Japanese is called umami, but that is the subject of another post.  Suffice it to say that this culinary certain something (je ne sais quoi) taste comes through "cheating" with MSG or some MSG containing substance such as Japanese Hon Dashi (and MSG was invented by Japanese scientist Ikeda Kikunae in 1908 to essentially bottle umami), or one can get it from substances such as, for example, miso and fish sauce.  WCG has also noticed that umami comes from slow cooking vegetables in a pot until their juices flow.  A little salt and pepper facilitates this, and for some reason this works much better in a high-sided pot than in a pan.  WCG also suspects that something like umami results from the proper balance of flavors such as salty, sweet, spicy, and sour, which is the the essence of, for example, good Thai cuisine.
Hawaiian miso
Pictured below is a tofu dish WCG made a couple months ago.  It features big tofu slabs (the packaged block sliced once down the middle) marinated overnight in a mixture of Hawaiian Miso and Canadian maple syrup.  WCG also threw in some Mexican chipoltle powder and some Vietnamese fish sauce.  WCG fried the slabs in fresh Wisconsin butter from the "Norwegian" town of Westby and then made a sandwich with the pan-fried tofu, fresh baby spinach, tomato, sliced onions, and his homemade Greek yogurt-based sauce as a condiment.

Frying tofu in pan (note extra WI butter on top)

Open faced tofu sandwich (and man, it was good!)

PS: Another great tofu dish is Japanese age dashi dōfu, which is soft tofu coated with corn or potato starch and fried, and then served in a broth of dashi (generally katsuo/bonito fish stock) flavored with a little mirin (sweet cooking wine) and maybe some shoyū.  It is then topped with daikon oroshi, which is daikon grated into a sort of paste, along with green onions, katsuoboshi (shavings of dried bonito fish), and/or grated horseradish.
Agedashi dōfu and daikon oroshi on its own
Daikon is a giant white Japanese radish, which is available in La Crosse supermarkets/grocery stores.  Its name literally means "Big root" 大根. As such, if one buys it it inconveniently takes up much space in the fridge.  However, WCG recently discovered Hmong farmers selling small daikon at local farmers' markets, but being about the size of carrots, they are somewhat of a misnomer (maybe "small root" or shōkon 小根?  I suppose there's words for the small kind in Southeast Asian languages...).  They taste like daikon though.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Cooking Tilapia I: Simple, Pan-Frying

Note: For West Coast Guy (WCG) this piece is a very basic beginning to a series of posts on ways of getting by in a culinary sense in a small, homogenous town in the upper Midwest.  There are no Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, African, or Middle Eastern restaurants.  There are many places that serve very bland food (and for lunch, lots and lots of  boring and/or unappetizing sandwiches), and there are a couple of places serving Japanese and Indian food, all of which can be of dubious quality at times.  WCG hasn't had much luck with Chinese food either (got buffets?).  The saving grace of the La Crosse area is that shopping at especially either the Coop, Woodman's, or Hmong supermarkets, one can acquire most of the same ingredients that one can purchase in urban areas and on the coasts.  With imagination, experimentation, previous knowledge and information from the internets, one can learn to cook some pretty good things in WCG's opinion.

Pan-Fried Tilapia

Frozen, farmed tilapia is ubiquitous these days.  It is also - they say (whoever they are) - very healthy,  sustainable, and relatively inexpensive.  It does, however, have its drawbacks.  It is relatively bland (which is a plus for those who don't like the taste of fish, I suppose, but not for West Coast Guy), and it is extremely fragile.  In fact, if one just throws a thawed but previously frozen, seasoned tilapia filet into a pan and fries it in a little oil or butter, it might even get a little mushy, unlike a fresh piece of salmon, for example.

Much experimentation has led to a couple of "tricks" for WCG when it comes to cooking tilapia filets that are fresh from the freezer.  First defrost, which can happen after many hours in the fridge or several minutes under running water or soaking in water.  In every case, the filet(s) should be enclosed in a plastic bag.  After the fish is thawed, wash it, and then dry it with paper towels.

Pan fried tilapia with Japanese brown rice, lime quarters, and lettuce
Then, for the method with the result pictured here, it is simple: season with salt and whatever else is handy (the example pictured here has chipotle powder, dill, and basil), and then rub some kind of flour on the fish.  One can use rice flour, wheat flour, corn starch, whatever....  WCG uses whole wheat or brown rice flour.  Then fry in a pan in a little oil at medium to medium high.  Turn when you can see the browning start to make its way up the sides of the pieces.

(Note: rubbing the filet with flour will give it structure, counteracting the overly fragile or even mushy tendencies of frozen tilapia.  The resulting texture makes it a much better dish than it otherwise would be.  But it is very important that the fish and the flour are dry.  Recipes call this technique "dredging," which usually means having a lot of flour in a bowl or dish or pile and sort of dipping the fish or chicken in the flour.  My way - rubbing - reduces the amount of flour one uses, as well as mess and cleanup.  Whatever you do, make sure the fish and flour are dry and that you do not have too much flour adhering to the fish; it should be a thin layer.  Otherwise, it will be coated with gummy cooked flour.  PS: I am sure deep fried tilapia, either breaded using flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs or with a batter is quite good tasting, but this way one uses less "bread" and oil, and it is thus healthier and easier, while in WCG's estimation tasting quite good.)

After cooking, if one wants, one can serve it with some kind of homemade or store bought sauce.  Tartar (white or red) works.  Other suggestions: Thai chile sauce, Indonesian kecap manis, sriracha sauce, fish sauce or soy sauce, or any combination of the above.  Homemade versions of "" or "rémoulade" or "aioli" (which can be as simple as mixing mayonnaise with whatever strikes one's fancy) can be good too, as well as eating the tilapia with some crispy marinated vegetables along the lines of Vietnamese do chua
Do Chua (Vietnamese marinated/pickled carrots and daikon)
A little squeeze of lemon or lime is also always good.

(One type of possible condiment for this fish involves Greek yogurt and various seasonings - a kind of 100% healthy and fat-free tartar sauce, but that is the subject of a later post.)
Today, I had my tilapia with a squirt of fresh lime and wrapped in a lettuce leaf Korean style with a little ssamjang, which is a spicy, seasoned fermented soy bean paste, a peppery version of what in Japanese is called miso.  La Crosse residents can get it at one of the Hmong stores, such as Indochinese Grocery Store, downtown, near Western Technical College.  Tilipia, of course, is available at Festival and Woodman's.









PS: Variation on the Theme
This was the brand....
Last night WCG made the fried tilapia as above with a slight variation: instead of just salt and pepper, I used salt and Chinese 5 spice seasoning.  Then I put whole wheat flour on it as above and fried it.  Then WCG and a friend ate it with marinated veggies, a fresh farmers market tomato with something like Miracle Whip (another brand, without the corn syrup), and something called Dragonfly Chile Sauce for Fish, a green bottled sauce bought at Indochinese Grocery Store.  This sauce has green chili, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, vinegar, fish sauce, salt, and sugar.  Together with brown rice, the fish in 5 spices with dragonfly sauce tasted like absolute heaven....
Very bitter melon
(Incidentally, WCG tried cooking bitter melon for the first time last night, in a stir fry, and did not like it.  Too bitter.  WCG's palate does have limits it seems....)