Friday, 10 February 2012

Soy-Braised Pig's Ears (NOT a Valentine's day recipe)

With February the 14th just round the corner, I'm seeing too many cupcakes, hearts and chocolate about. This is one recipe that is definitely not pink and sweet, and in fact, is quite likely to make your Valentine's stomach churn.

If you regularly read my blog, you'll know that I'm quite the offal fan. It's cheap, usually more nutritious than the popular cuts (liver has loads of vitamin a for instance, and trotters are rich in gelatin), more sustainable, and delicious. The last point is probably a point of contention, but I really think more people just don't give it a try enough.

Pig's ears are a first for me, it's actually not very meaty at all, made up mostly of soft cartilage and skin, i.e. gelatin i.e. good for joints and skin. I thought I'd treat it like kway chap, a very popular Singapore breakfast dish made up of very wide sheets of rice noodle sheets with soy-braised pig's intestines, beancurd and eggs. Absolutely delicious. See why I am the way I am?

Soy-Braised Pig's Ears (adapted from jeroxie's recipe)
For the pig's ears
A pair of pig's ears
2 cups water
1/4 cup of shaoxing wine
4 tbsp good soy sauce (traditionally brewed and fermented)
1 heaped tbsp of unrefined palm sugar
large thumb of ginger
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
generous dash of five spice powder
white pepper and fresh coriander, to serve

For the rice noodle sheets

For the chilli dipping sauce
2-3 large red chillies (not bird's eye)
1 clove garlic
1" ginger
1-2 tbsp rice vinegar
unrefined sea salt and sugar, to taste

1. First you need to clean the ear really well. That's probably the hardest bit about this. Use an unloved shaver to shave off the excess hair and try to scrub away any dirt. That part was quite icky, but at least it doesn't stink the way I heard intestines do, and it feels less squishy than normal meat in fact. It's really just like, your own ear, but extra large. Blanch the pig's ears in boiling water and throw away the water with all the gunk.

2. Add all ingredients to a pot, bring to a boil, and then let simmer on low heat for 5-6h, longer will make it nice and gelatinous, shorter will leave it with a slight crunch in the middle. I just put it in a slow-cooker, on high for about 3 hours.

3. Meanwhile, you can prepare your chilli sauce (just blend everything)

and rice noodles sheets. This time, don't roll the rice sheets, and just slice (I'm into tearing) into very wide noodles.

4. Remove the ears and slice. Place noodles into a bowl, scoop the braising stock over, add a dash of white pepper, and top with the sliced ears and fresh coriander.

I know this is probably not many people's cup of tea, but I'll assure you it's not icky at all, and in fact delicious. The soy braising stock is the star actually, aromatic with the chinese braising spices, lightly savoury and slightly sweet at the same time. If you have any leftover, you can simmer some peeled hardboiled eggs in them for Chinese soy-braised eggs, or the easier/more traditional way is just to add them towards the end of cooking. The pig's ears themselves are soft and gelatinous on the outside, with just a slight bit of bite in the middle, great for slurping the fat rice noodle sheets with.

It's a nostalgic yum for me. I'm not being weird; try it. Maybe not for Valentine's day, but try it.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Simple Spiced Rice-cooker Pilaf

Once you get plain rice right, it's easy to do a whole range of rice dishes. Change the water to homemade stock or coconut milk, add a spoon of fried shallot oil or garlic oil, or even a generous dab of butter, and the plain ol' boring rice immediately becomes neither plain nor boring. There's no change in the basic steps at all, but it looks and tastes a bit more exciting than a pot of plain white rice (which I do love though). This one, I just sauteed the rice in some ghee with whole garam masala spices first, it's a brilliant side to Indian curries or and probably Arabian-style spiced stews and tagines.

Indian mothers seem to frown upon that thing, that modern rice-cooking machine, but ask any Asian mothers and they will swear by their rice cookers, and so do I. My beloved pink Toyomi rice cooker turned out fluffy, feather-light grains that may just fool the beady eyes of the Indian housewife. That said, you can easily do this over the stove-top too, in almost exactly the same steps.

Simple Spiced Rice-cooker Pilaf
1 cup basmati rice, soaked for half to 1 hour
1 onion, chopped finely
1 cinnamon stick
4 cardamom pods, crushed
2 cloves
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 cup cold water (plus minus. depends on your brand/age of rice and how long you soak)
very generous pinch of unrefined sea salt
1 scant tbsp of ghee/coconut oil

1. Switch rice cooker to "cook" and let the pot heat up.
2. Add the ghee/oil and saute the whole spices for a min or so to toast.

3. Add the chopped onions to sweat, before adding the ground turmeric.

4. Add the soaked and drained rice, saute to coat in the spices, then add the water and salt, and close the lid (make sure it's still on 'cook').

5. When it clicks done, do the "close and wait, open and fluff, close and wait, open and breathe".

(i.e. When it's done, do not open for 10 min. Then open, give a fluff through with a chopstick or fork but no spoon. then close and let steam for another 5 min. Then open for a min or so to let excess moisture evaporate, take the time to breathe in the wonderful fragrance. You can then eat or let it stay warm in there for a while longer till you want to eat.)

While cooking, the fragrance of the spices and the basmati rice will perfume your kitchen. Though done in "that rice-cooker thing", the rice has cooked up beautifully into loose, fluffy grains, and each and every one of it has soaked up all the warming flavours of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, and the golden colour from the turmeric. Now I just need a big bubbling pot of curry with extra chillies, and I think I'm all set against the ridiculously late february snow.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Plain Old Boring Rice

Yes, paella is nice, so is risotto and congee and nasi lemak and all these special rice dishes, but there is just something so essential and comforting about a "boring" bowl of rice to an asian meal. And you'll be surprised how many people can't get it right. It was the hardest thing to me when I first started to cook for myself. It either clumps, or isn't cooked on the inside, or is both of them at the same time.

Long-grain white rice is the humble staple to accompany almost everything for me. I don't particularly fancy the korean/japanese sushi rice for anything other than well, sushi, so this is a guide only for the common white rice. I have 2 favourite varieties, basmati rice to go with curries/for fried rice, and jasmine rice to go with most other se asian/chinese food. The methods are a bit different because you want different end results (see "so what is perfect rice" below), but not that different, so here we go.

So many people don't seem to find this important, but it is. They say it used to be necessary to remove talc in old processing methods but rinsing does more than that. You remove surface starch, stop it from clumping later, and just makes it overall cleaner and fresher tasting. Put the uncooked rice in plenty of water and swirl and swish and massage. Plus, you give your hands a nice shot of free SK-II anti-aging skincare at the same time. Wash till the water runs almost clear, it won't ever be totally clear.

Soak (only for basmati)
Soaking makes the grains really long and slender. I try to soak it for 30 min, sometimes I forget and leave it for an hour, and other times, I forget and just do it for 15 min. After soaking you throw away the soaking water with more unwanted surface starch. Cooking in fresh water makes the rice really fluffy and separate.

Water to rice ratio
My mum has this traditional method I'm sure you've all heard rumours of, sticking your finger in and adding enough wanter to come to the first knuckle of the index finger. It works for her, and it works for me sometimes, if I'm doing it in the pot of the same size, and for about the same amount of rice. But I don't know if it will work for a big guy with giant fingers.
So the more conventional ratio I always hear is 2:1. I don't know how it can work for people because I always get mush with 2:1.
For jasmine rice, I do 1 1/4: 1.
For basmati rice, I do 1:1, perhaps a bit more if it wasn't soaked.
But it varies a tiny bit with the brand and age. Just experiment. 2 flops should do it.

What else?
For basmati, also add a drop or two of ghee or some other oil.
And most western cooks seem to advocate salting the rice. I guess it's all good and fine if you want to, but most asians don't. It's really just a plain bowl of rice, sweet and simple, to go with the colourful flavourful side dishes.
Of course, if you want, you can throw in some spices like a cinnamon stick or some cardamom pods to the rice for extra fragrance. BUT these are instructions for a "boring" bowl of rice.

The Rice-cooker Way
"God every asian has this!"- english roommate in year 1.
Haha yup, it does make life easier.
1. Add water (and oil) to rice. Cook. How difficult can it get?
2. But also do the "close and wait, open and fluff, close and wait, open and breathe".
(i.e. When it's done, do not open for 10 min. Then open, give a fluff through with a chopstick or fork but no spoon. then close and let steam for another 5 min. Then open for a min or so to let excess moisture evaporate, take the time to breathe in the wonderful fragrance. You can then eat or let it stay warm in there for a while longer till you want to eat.)

The Stovetop Way
1. Add the water (and oil) to rice, bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
2. Once it starts boiling, turn the heat down to a medium and let it simmer, don't peek. Takes about 15 min, probably less if it's soaked basmati rice. Or just until you see most of the water has been absorbed and you see craters.
3. Turn the heat down to very low, and let it finish cooking for about 10 min.
4. Take it off the heat, and do the "close and wait, open and fluff, close and wait, open and breathe".

So what is perfect rice?
For basmati, it's that unique basmati aroma, and the fluffy, long separate grains of rice. Not sticky, not dry either but loose enough for the rice to flow easily when you run your spoon (or hands) through it.
For jasmine rice, it's that warm jasmine scent, the grains will be soft but not mushy, and plumper than the basmati. Not sushi rice-sticky enough to pick up a clump with a pair of chopsticks, but less dry than basmati, so you can shovel it safely from bowl to mouth with the chopsticks (bowl being just in front of your mouth of course).

Whichever it is, "plain old boring" rice is a thing of beauty. I love the little pearly white* grains, the curl of steam unfurling from it. I love how humble and simple it is- how easily it pairs with so many things, yet how happy it is to give its partner the limelight. I love the distinct signature fragrance it gives off, and even the sound of the rice cooker clicking when it's done.

I say, sod it with all the talk about "healthier" brown rice.
My mum absolutely hates brown rice. She says it's hard, and sits heavy in the stomach. There was a period of time I was convinced I loved it because it was higher in fibre and nutrients and what not, but in fact, the phytates in the hull of whole grains prevent us from absorbing all these additional nutrients so in fact we absorb a lot less goodness eating brown rice than white. I've since returned to the type of rice I grew up eating- white rice. And just look at the healthy Japanese, Koreans and Thais who prefer their rice white too. That said, I do have soaked wholegrain rice, but as I learnt from traditional chinese medicine and ayurveda, its warming and drying properties make it suitable less frequently than the neutral and calming white rice. There is a reason why our bodies cleverly seek out food that tastes better.


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