Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Wontons, Two Ways

Last week I showed you how to make wontons, today let's talk about how to eat them. Wontons are typically served in one of two ways, in a soup or tossed with a spicy sauce. The latter is actually a famous traditional Sichuan street food called hong-you-chao-shou, translation: wontons in red chili oil.

The ubiquitous wonton soup from Chinese takeout restaurants are, in a word, subpar. Those wontons are usually factory made, with poorly made fillings, and the soup is very one dimensional in flavor, heavily remedied by salt and MSG. When you make wonton soup at home, the results are very different. Tender and meaty homemade wontons bathed in a fresh and brothy soup that is light in body and rich in flavor--it's comfort in a bowl.

In a spicy sauce, wontons take on a whole new personality. They become more complex and bold in flavor and are deliciously savory. In this Sichuan classic, wontons are usually sitting in more chili oil, but in my recipe I use less.

A word about the recipes I'm about to share with you... Wontons are similar to a fast food meal in our house (in regards to time, not quality) and the recipes will reflect that. What I mean by this is, because they're so easy and fast to make, it's my go-to when I need to whip together a meal in limited time. As a result, there are certain "cheats" I've developed in my wonton recipes all for the sake of efficiency (or is it just laziness?)

For example, using chicken stock and water for my wonton soup base allows me to make a meal in less than 20 minutes. Are there ways to make the soup base that will yield even more depth of flavor? Of course! But that usually requires ingredients I may not readily have on hand and more time, and the difference of me going from hungry to hangry.

So keep that in mind and perhaps see this as an opportunity for you to experiment with the recipes. Maybe you always have dried shiitake mushrooms in your pantry, they would be great in the soup!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Homemade Wontons

You've probably had wonton soup when you've ordered Chinese takeout, but did you know that wontons can actually make a filling and delicious meal on their own? They can be enjoyed in a soup or with a spicy Sichuan style sauce. I'll be getting to that later this week, but first, let's talk about making the wontons.

Wontons are very simple to make and at home, you can make them with leaner meat and incorporate some leafy greens to make them more healthy yet just as tasty. You can find wonton wrappers (also called "wonton skins") in Asian supermarkets, usually in the refrigerated or frozen section. The filling traditionally uses ground pork, but ground chicken or turkey can also be used and you'll barely notice a difference.

[ packages of wonton wrappers/skins ]
When incorporating greens into the filling, my go-to is watercress. It's small and easy to manage (so not a lot of cleaning and prepping to do) and it's light in flavor and loaded with nutrients. Since the filling can only accommodate about a handful of the veggies, I usually just toss extra veggies into the pot when I'm boiling the wontons. The more greens, the better! Of course, if you're less of a veggie-lover than I am or just don't have any greens on hand, just omit the watercress.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

5 Under $25: Accessories That I'm Loving for Spring

Spring is [supposedly] officially here, but here in the Northeast the weather still has been quite chilly. Every day this week I've been looking at gray skies and I'm still using my winter coat. Sigh. While I can't control what's going on outside, I'm certainly trying to have spring in full swing inside the house. It's a good thing that Whole Foods has been stocked with fresh tulips, they're my favorite flower to have in the house every spring and they bring such wonderful color and life into the home.

Updating your accessories is a great way to update your wardrobe or home for a new season; it's the small touches that often make a huge impact. Here are five accessories that I'm loving right now and they're all fast, affordable, and effective ways to take you into spring!

1. Lemon Zip Top Clutch (ASOS, $23)
This little clutch just simply makes me smile :) I love lemons! This pop of citrus livens up any outfit. The playful shape and design is perfect for a fun and casual weekend.

2. Yellow Wire Bin (Crate & Barrel, $16.95)
As much as I'm loving lemon yellows this season, I'm also loving wire bins. So, this one's pretty much everything I could ask for. Wire bins are perfect for organizing and storing anything, without the bulky appearance of solid and opaque containers. I especially love using them for storing bathroom accessories and also fruits and veggies. The see-through wire structure allows me to see everything at once (no more lost or forgotten items at the bottom of a bin) while still neatly corrals otherwise loose things, big and small.

3. Raspberry Dish Towel (IKEA, $4.99/Set of 2)
One of the quickest ways to bring a home into a new season is by updating the textiles. Bedding, curtains, pillows, towels... just introduce a pop of color or a fun pattern and your home will immediately feel as fresh as spring. Updating your dish towels is an easy and affordable way to do this. These raspberry prints from IKEA are adorable and--if you spend as much time in the kitchen as I do--they'll keep you happy with the thoughts of warmer and sunnier days to come.

4. Mini Bud Vases (CB2, $1.95 and up)
While bud vases are nothing new, I'm particularly fond of miniature ones. I also love the ones with shapes that feel organic, like the low glass bud vase pictured above that reminds me of a river stone. These tiny vessels are understated and elegant; a sprig of anything (even leafy herbs from the kitchen!) will appear elevated and precious. And at such an affordable price, I would scatter these all around the house--on a nightstand, in the bathroom, on my desk, next to the kitchen sink, the list goes on!

5. Kastor Vase (CB2, $16.95)
I often have fresh cut flowers in the home, but after they fade away, I usually have to put away the vase as well. What I love about this multi-faceted vase from CB2 is that its sculptural shape allows it to stand on its own as a decorative piece even without flowers. I find its shape equally geometric and organic, and the small opening essentially makes it a large bud vase. A few stems of your favorite blooms or simply a single leafy branch in this vase makes just as a strong statement as a full bouquet.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Easy Easter Dessert: Mini Bird's Nest Cupcakes

In front of my cousin's house there is a little pine tree in which a red-breasted robin faithfully lays her eggs each year. The nest would always be low enough for us to peek inside and, over the course of a few weeks, we would watch the eggs hatch into nestlings and the featherless chicks grow their wings, until one day we'd find with bittersweet surprise that the nest is once again empty from their newfound flight.

The robin's beautiful blue eggs always reminded me of the candy coated chocolate eggs that are sold in stores around this time of the year. So for this Easter, I'm making these mini bird's nest cupcakes that are perfect for celebrating this holiday of new life and the promise of spring. Plus, I think they're just adorable!

These mini bird's nest cupcakes are super easy to make. If you're lazy resourceful like me, you can buy pre-made mini cupcakes from pretty much any supermarket bakery. If you want to make the cupcakes yourself, you can go the cake mix route or--if you've got both the time and the ambition--make everything from scratch. If you're making the cupcakes yourself, you do have more flavor options. I personally really like the pairing of lemon cake with vanilla frosting, it's light and refreshing--perfect for the season of spring.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

DIY Art: Framed Places of Memories

Two months ago, I went to China and spent a week in Chengdu, Sichuan (my hometown) visiting my relatives. I don't get to visit often, probably only once every two years or so. Every time I go back, I'm struck by how much the city has changed since my childhood and continues to change. The roads get wider and the buildings get taller; one lane streets open up into two lanes and, just a few years later, expand into four lanes. Low row storefronts that had just converted into six story walk-ups are now being knocked down again to make way for high-rise apartment buildings four to seven times as tall.

The rate of change is astounding, at times disorienting, and most of all, bittersweet. I'm proud to see the once quaint city of my birthplace transform into a urban metropolis and emerge as an international travel destination, but as mom and pop noodle shops give way to Pizza Hut's and street market vendors are ushered indoors, I couldn't help but feel that I'm losing the place I once knew so dearly.

So much of our memories are attached to places. Familiar sights and landmarks orient us and endure as the backdrop of our past. What if those places ceased to exist? Would my stories and memories become less real and more like legends?

I knew I wanted to preserve the memories of my birthplace and childhood with a map. I also wanted it to be more than just a piece of paper stashed away in a drawer; I wanted it to be a visible reminder and a portal to where I came from. So why not frame it as art?

A map is a great way to memorialize a special place or your travels. More than pictures, which are individual snapshots of specific moments in time, a map provides context and can unit entire stories that are representative of a period of time.

In my framed map of Chengdu, I can see my entire childhood. I can pinpoint the locations of my childhood home, my grandparents' homes, my elementary school, local parks and shopping centers. In these places lie the memories of spendings weekends at my grandparents' house with my cousins, going to the park for picnics with my entire extended family, and bustling summer evenings at the night market. I can literally trace the route I used to take walking from my school to my grandparents' house.

Another thing I really like about this simple project is that it serves as an understated yet meaningful piece of art that can fit anywhere in your home. It holds a travel story without having to be a photo collage, and it's certainly a conversation piece.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Make Your Own Chili Oil

If talking about chili oils and sauces made your tongue wag, then today's recipe is for you! Growing up, every Sichuan household I knew made their own chili oil. This is something true even to this day; in fact, the quality of someone's homemade chili oil is a glimpse into how good their home cooking is. A good chili oil is superbly aromatic and delightfully spicy.

The quality of chili oil is mainly dependent upon the quality of the chilis used. If you have the good fortune of living near a well-stocked Asian supermarket, you may be able to find good ground dried chilis. The ground dried chilis I'm talking about here is more of like chili flakes, it's not chili powder, so what you want to see are chili flakes and seeds. In where I live, I've only been able to find these in the Chinese grocery store.

[chili powder (left) vs. ground dried chilis, flakes (right)]
If you really have trouble finding this, a good alternative is to buy whole dried red chilis and chop it up yourself in a food processor. Another option--though I've never tried this myself--is to use the American kind of chili flakes (the kind you sprinkle on pizza, pasta, etc.) I imagine it just might do the job.

Monday, March 16, 2015

In My Pantry: Chili Sauces

When people talk about Sichuan cuisine, the first thing that will come up--because this is the thing that it's most famous for--is ma-la, which translates into "numbing spicy." The "numbing" refers to the effect of Sichuan pepper corns (more about that another time) which is prolifically used throughout Sichuan cooking, even in non-spicy dishes. And the spicy is just heat, which can be introduced in many different forms of chilis and chili sauces.

As a born and raised Sichuan girl, I always like to explain that the Sichuan spicy is different from many other cuisines that are known for spiciness. The Sichuan spicy is not about being spicy for spiciness' sake; the goal is not to render your tongue useless. Does that happen sometimes? Sure. But that's mainly due to the fact that once you fall in love with spicy food, you may actually like it when it hurts a little.

The spiciness in Sichuan food is about how it blends with all the other flavors in a dish. It's about balance, and how all the flavors and qualities of a dish come together and enhance one another to produce the utmost savoriness. When you have good spicy Sichuan food, the heat is at once stimulating enough and tempered enough that you can, and want to, keep on eating until you basically can't fit anymore food in your body. It's what we natives often talk about as the spiciness being so good that it's addicting.

Being that spiciness is such a big part of Sichuan cooking, needless say my pantry is always stocked with an array of chili options. While dried whole chilis and chili powder are also used in Sichuan cooking, from my own experience it's the chili sauces that I usually reach for. They maintain their flavors and heat for longer in storage and are more flavorful and versatile, able to be used both for cooking and sauces.

Here are the chili sauces in my pantry, from left to right:

Chili Oil
We always have at least two bottles of this perpetually in stock because we go through it so fast. A chili oil gives you mainly just pure heat and chili aromas and flavors, without additional flavors like vinegar, sugar, etc. that are often found in chili sauces. I use this for everything, from cooking to dipping sauces to dressing to just having a dollop on the side of... anything! This particular brand "Lao Gan Ma" (translation: old aunty) is my family's favorite, we just call it "old lady sauce" because it has a picture of an old lady on it.

Chili Bean Sauce
The spicy bean sauce is more of a paste than a sauce, made with fermented soybeans, salt, and spices. It's rich in flavor, aromatic, and salty. The go-to brand is "Pi-xian" (not pictured here) but for convenience (since I actually don't cook with this often) I use the Cantonese brand "Lee Kum Kee," which is more saucy in consistency, with flavors of garlic and mild vinegar.

Chili Garlic Sauce
The chili-garlic flavor is a staple of Sichuan cuisine, but I don't think authentic cooking actually uses a pre-made chili garlic sauce. Usually, fresh minced garlic is cooked with chili oil or chili bean sauce in hot oil to produce the chili-garlic flavor. But having chili garlic sauce in a bottle, although flavors may differ, is convenient for everyday purposes. I use "Huy Fong" brand (aka. rooster brand) chili garlic sauce since it pairs nicely with almost any type of Asian food. It's vinegary with a nice robust garlic flavor.

Sriracha Sauce
The sriracha sauce needs no introduction. Nowadays it's found everywhere in both Eastern and Western foods. It's not for traditional Sichuan cooking, but I keep it in stock because of it's highly versatile. Sweet, salty, vinegary, with a nice level of heat, I put sriracha sauce on any and everything--eggs, sandwiches, fries, meat, fried rice, pizza, quesadillas, vegetables... you name it.

Do you like it spicy? What's your go-to chili sauce?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Last Minute Valentine's Day Gift: Love Jar

Happy early Valentine's Day! :)

Now before some of you go rolling your eyes, let me just say that if Valentine's Day is about love, then don't we all have something to celebrate? After all, I'm sure we all have someone we love, be it a significant other, a parent, a sibling, a child, or a really wonderful friend. Why should we then let commercial custom dictate how we should celebrate this day and who we should celebrate it with?

I think Valentine's Day is an occasion for us to acknowledge and cherish those we love, an occasion that is sufficiently special and sufficiently celebrated whether you convey that through a loving gesture, a thoughtful gift, or simply quality time together. That and I also just love me a holiday! I don't think we get enough of them especially for this time of the year. Like, seriously, I don't think National Croissant Day at Starbucks counts. And I'm pretty sure they just made that up to sell more croissants. But, I digress.

So if you have someone you love in mind, but not the foresight to have planned ahead before the holiday that is tomorrow, today's DIY is for you!

It's what I call a "love jar." Each origami heart inside this jar of hearts unfolds to reveal a personal message inside. For the beloved recipient, whenever they need a lift, an encouragement, or an affirmation, they can just reach into the jar and retrieve some words from your "heart" that will surely bring a smile to their face. You can include any words of love, private jokes, or even cherished memories.

This would actually make for a wonderful gift for anybody, for any occasion. All it takes is less than $5 worth of supplies and a few hours of your time, but its thoughtfulness and meaningfulness will make this gift truly special. It's the gift that keeps on giving! And for those who like to go big, you can even make as many as 365 hearts for your jar, one for each day of the year for your special person. So let's get started!