Friday, August 29, 2014

Korean-style Grilled Pork Wraps with Assorted Leaves (Ssam)

My recent short visit to Seoul had gotten me a quick fix on all things barbequed, fiery hot (so sadistically hot I nearly Poughkeepsied in my pants the morning after), coated and deep fried. No visit to Seoul - or anywhere else for that matter - is complete without a detour to the supermarkets, where fresh produce and meats compete in sheer variety with a mind-boggling array of all things preserved and pickled.

My favorite section of all Korean groceries is undoubtedly what I dub the "ssam bar" (sounds familiar, New Yorkers?) - a misty, self-serve cooler where shoppers arm themselves with a pair of tongs and pick away from a dazzling assortment of lettuces and leaves sold by weight. Here you will find stacks upon stacks of the intensely fragrant perilla leaf, distinct with its grassy notes of anise and liquorice, that are larger, rounder, flatter, and with a less serrated edge than its Japanese counterpart, shiso. While some of these greens require cooking, most are destined to be consumed fresh, enveloping a morsel of sizzling hot samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly) and a range of toppings.

My craving for Korean food hardly subsided by the time I returned home to my penthouse kitchen. Stocking up my fridge with fresh groceries from Korea, I began to plan for a power lunch for the following day. I needed something quick and hassle-free, and something to stave off my craving before I head to work. And so I 'cheated' by using a store-bought kalbi marinade, marinated some antibiotic-free pork shoulder overnight, and whipped together an improvised ssamjang the next day.

Below is my recipe for a fast and basic Korean-inspired ssam, or lettuce wrap, that also makes good use of my homemade Pink Pickled Radishes (click for recipe). I have also only recently discovered a way of lining my almighty Panini Grill to eliminate cleanup. So if you've got one just like mine, this delicious meal is practically ready in under 10 minutes with hardly anything to wash. Scrubbing down the beast is a thing of the past!

To Prepare...
Same results, zero mess!
1. Cut pork shoulder or collar into bite-sized morsels. Marinate for at least 30 min or overnight in pork kalbi marinade.

2. Preheat Panini Grill, line with aluminium foil, carefully folding in the edges to contain any runoff while grilling. Place marinated pork on grill, top with another sheet of foil, then press and leave to grill until fully cooked. Alternatively, use a griddle or a heavy skillet.

3. In the meantime, prepare ssamjang, which is a thick, spicy-savoury paste typically used with grilled meats in lettuce wraps in Korean cuisine. Either use a commercially produced ssamjang or make your own. I improvised with mixing miso paste with a dallop of Gochujang and a dash of sesame oil - super shortcut, and close to the real thing!

4. Check that pork has begun to caramelize and is cooked through. Build your wraps with pickled radishes, a sizzling chunk of pork, a tiny clump of ssamjang, and finish off with toppings such as micro sprouts for a cool contrast to the flavorful pork and a boost in phytonutrients!

Note: you can also add rice to make this a ssambap. Simply layer on a clump of rice and you've got a well-rounded meal!

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Pink Pickled Radishes

On a recent visit to the groceries in Los Angeles, I dove towards a basket full of locally grown radishes as if it were a quarry of precious gems. Indeed, these glistening rubies of the earth would be so rare back home that they'd only be found with a preposterous price at the up-market C!tySuper as foreign imports. Without much thought I snatched a bunch of these gems for just a dollar. For the record I did suppress a little victory dance.

The hue of these radishes enthralls me. Not crimson, not magenta, but a distinct shade of red in between that contrasts starkly with its cool white flesh. Its crisp pepperiness makes radishes an interesting addition to salads and meats, but pickling them makes them all the more fun for anything that deserves a pickle. A sandwich, a lettuce wrap, a taco... or simply straight from the jar. Experiment with different herbs when preparing this pickle. Some recipes call for tarragon, or bay leaf. I find that thyme imparts a delicate layer of flavor without overpowering; I'm using thyme also partly because my thyme plants are at their prime this season!

To prepare...
Radish (I used 6 medium sized ones)
3/4 cup of distilled white vinegar (or white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar)
3/4 cup of water
2 tablespoons of honey (or agave nectar for vegans)
2 teaspoons of sea salt
1 clove of garlic, peeled
10 black peppercorns, roughly crushed
1-2 sprigs of fresh thyme (optional)

 1. Wash and gently scrub radishes and trim off the stalks and roots. Slice into thin rings using a fine knife or a mandolin.

2. In a saucepan, bring the water, vinegar, honey and salt to a boil until completely dissolved. Turn the heat off and set aside.
3. Pack the sliced radish into a sterilized jar. (Blogger Karon Grieve provides an excellent resource on Larder Love on how to easily sterilize jars. I opt for the oven method.)

4. Pour the pickling liquid over the radishes. Add the peppercorns, garlic clove, and herbs if using. Muse at the jar as the mixture gradually turns into a lovely pink hue!

5. Cover with lid and let cool. Place in the refrigerator once cooled. The pickled radishes will be ready overnight and keep well for several weeks, although they are most fresh and crisp for about 5 days after pickling.

Note: If you let the garlic clove hangout too long in the jar, the radishes will take on a very strong garlic flavor. If all you want is a touch of garlic, remove the clove after one day.

[Any thoughts or comments? I want to hear from you! Also check out my Facebook Fan Page]

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sausage and Sundried Tomato Pasta Toss with Broccoli and Feta

After two consecutive weeks busy at work, constantly on the move, eating out and staying up late, I yearn to retire to my penthouse kitchen for some therapeutic cooking time. Yet as I squirm in bed shortly after passing out from fatigue, I am certain tonight is one of those nights when time and energy are excruciatingly scarce to cook up a storm. The only storm there is is brewing outside my window. I groan as soreness radiates from every fiber of my body, still trying to make sense of where I am as my ceiling spins.

Appalled by the thought of crawling out through the din and mobs in search for food, I decide to adhere to my principles and make do with what I have in the pantry to create something comforting, fulfilling, something least exerting.

I thaw some gourmet British sausages I often reserve in the freezer either for a fancy brunch or for times like this. I pull out a remaining half head of broccoli, some sundried tomatoes and feta, harvest some fresh herbs before the rain pours; and I think I am all set for a no-frills pasta dish that effectively combines all the major food groups in one.

To prepare...
Pasta, your favorite (I use this toothsome Radiatori I found in France. J'adore its texture!)
2 links of pork or chicken sausages (I use UK Bramley apple & pork sausages)
1/2 head of broccoli, cut into florets, stalk kept for other uses
5 pieces of sundried tomatoes, reconstituted and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
Extra virgin olive oil
Thyme, fresh or dried
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt and pepper
Feta cheese, crumbled (also tasty with shaved parmesan!)

1. Cook pasta in a large pot of salted, boiling water. When pasta has 2 minutes left until al dente, add broccoli florets. Drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta liquid, set aside.

2. Meanwhile, parboil or partially cook sausages in a skillet over medium high heat, approx. 4-5 mins. Remove to a plate then slice when cool enough to handle.
3. Add olive oil to skillet. Over medium heat, briefly saute garlic, then add sausage and thyme, stirring constantly until sausage is lightly browned. Add sundried tomatoes and toss.

4. Pour pasta and broccoli into the skillet and toss. Add reserved pasta liquid half cup at a time as seen appropriate. Season with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes according to taste. Drizzle in more olive oil if necessary and toss to coat.
5. Scoop into bowls and top with crumbled feta cheese plus more fresh thyme if using, et voilà!

Enjoy the flavorsome medley of browned sausage, garlic, sundried tomatoes and creamy feta in this quick, last-minute pasta!

[Any thoughts or comments? Please share with me! Also check out my Facebook Fan Page)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Grilled Halloumi and Summer Squash Stacks

Verdant zucchinis, lanky crooknecks, squat little patty pans - with summer in full swing farmers markets are brimming with beautiful summer squash of all shapes and sizes.

My recent visit to Brooklyn's Borough Hall Greenmarket in New York sees me bagging home a firm and flawless yellow squash that is slightly weighty for its size. A trip to the deli in the U.A.E. also has me acquiring a coveted product I've always had a hanker for - a block of fresh Halloumi cheese. I figure it's time I act on that lust.

Both ingredients a rarity back home in Hong Kong, the summer squash and the Halloumi offer up a contrasting world of flavor and textures. The former delicate in flavor, creamy and tender in the flesh; the latter - an unripened brined cheese made of a mixture of sheep's, goat's, and sometimes cow's milk - is salty and dense, almost rubbery to the teeth, making it the perfect choice for grilling and frying.

Both ingredients are first-timers in my kitchen. Both are awesome on their own, requiring no more than minimal tempering to showcase their individual qualities. Less is definitely more when I decide to wed them together in this visually stunning, yet astoundingly simple dish that makes for an outstanding starter when entertaining.

I use my almighty Panini Grill that, with its simultaneous action on top and bottom, not only cooks everything to perfection within sheer minutes but also imprints those sexy grill marks. For some icing on the cake, I top the creation with tasty homemade Arugula Pesto. The recipe can be found here. 

To prepare...
Slice summer squash at a bias about 1/2 inch thick. Toss in olive oil and season with black pepper and thyme (I used fresh thyme from my garden). Omit salt bearing in mind that the Halloumi is already salted.
Slice Halloumi into 1/2 inch-thick slices.


When grill is hot, arrange the squash and Halloumi on the grill and press for 2 minutes or until lightly charred. If using a griddle pan or a sauteeing pan, flip the squash and Halloumi and grill/cook evenly on both sides.

Stack the Halloumi and summer squash and serve with a dollop of Arugula Pesto (optional). Garnish with fresh thyme. Enjoy!

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Arugula Pesto (Pesto di Rucola)

"Hi..." A mousy-haired woman clutching a clipboard gingerly approaches from a distance as I browse cutting boards at the historic St. Lawrence Market, downtown Toronto. I have always dreamed of owning a fancy wooden board, but the mere thought of Hong Kong's humidity invariably extinguishes this dream almost as fast as it comes.

The young woman's expression shows faint signs of desperation mixed with glimmers of hope, as if she understood what is going through my mind.
"Would you happen to be a home cook?"

Curious, taken by surprise, I pause for a split second, my eyes squinting and discreetly scanning the woman. A sales rep marketing some cookware membership? A surveryor perhaps? 

"Umm... well, I sure love to cook." I respond as cheerily as I can muster while maintaining distance. The poor woman appears to have been trying her luck for hours without much success.

"Oh!! That's awesome!" Her eyes lighting up, she exclaims as she throws her arms up in glee, inhales, and continues, "well, if you're not already aware, Jamie Oliver is launching a television reality series this fall called Pressure Cooker, it's going to be based in Toronto! And I'm actually searching for..."

Wait. Jamie Oliver?! A reality show? This is probably the next best thing ever since a model agency scout stopped me on the streets of L.A. - only to hand my buddy Pablo a business card many years back. Pablo is tall, chiseled, handsome. Still is.  

The historical St. Lawrence Market, Toronto
I am leaving Toronto the day after. I must interrupt this woman before hope overbuilds to avert the anticlimactic crash.
"Damn... but I don't live in Toronto!"
As expected, the woman's excitement deflates almost instantaneously, hope draining out of her like the thought of humidity in Hong Kong does to me.
"Well... go on," I urge, "I want to hear about this series!"

Set to debut in fall 2014, Pressure Cooker will see celebrity chefs paired with home cooks who must use limited ingredients to cook tasty meals against the clock, bringing the contestants' skills and creativity to test as they would at home cooking up healthy meals with only what they have on hand.

Come to think of it, that's what I do a lot of times. I use what is available in my pantry while sparing a trip to the groceries as much as possible, and put together meals that are both healthy and fun.

The sheer thought of featuring in reality TV shoulder to shoulder with Jamie Oliver makes me giddy, even though I know without a doubt that I stand zero chance in making past auditions had I been eligible. I will be that Asian dude who cracks under pressure and drops everything in a panic (over-the-top reality drama - I reckon that's not necessarily a bad thing for the producers?).
Snapping back to reality... I stare inside my fridge, and there sits a half bag of rocket leaves waiting impatiently. Pesto di rucola comes to mind. I have been missing homemade pesto terribly, since my basil plant has been rather dreary lately. Arugula pesto offers up a slightly more pungent than sweet taste but is equal in versatility, dressing up anything from pasta to chicken wraps to prawns.

The good news is that almost all nuts work spectacularly for pesto - especially almonds, cashews, and walnuts - so worry not about pine nuts, which are considerably costly.

To prepare...
2 cups of packed arugula leaves
1/2 cup of cashew nuts, toasted
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil 
1/2 cup Pecorino cheese, or Parmesan
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice 
Salt and pepper
Combine the arugula, nuts, garlic, cheese, and olive oil in the blender and pulse until smooth. Add more olive oil if mixture clogs.

Test flavor and adjust ingredients accordingly. Add salt and pepper to taste, and fresh squeezed lemon juice to brighten up the pesto.  
Get creative enjoying the pesto!
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