Tofu at Home

As I mentioned before, I was recently living at my parents’ house for two months. I asked them when it would ever be inappropriate for me to go “home” and live with them, rent-free, with meals included. Luckily for me, they answered,

“never.”

So until I’m too old to do so, I’m going to be doing things like going back home to my parents’ house when I’m sick and using their Vitamix to make tofu.

My friend Sarah from RecipeRelay first started me thinking of homemade tofu, when she created her own batch last year. As much as I eat the stuff, I never really considered it possible to try making it at home. In the U.S., it’s so commercially sold that we often forget it’s meant to be eaten fresh and hand-made. So with Sarah breaking it down and providing a link to a step-by-step recipe I could follow, I was super inspired. But the task was still a bit daunting, and with tofu so cheap at the markets in China (as little as 10cents for a small block!), I never had the urge to try it myself in my own kitchen.

That, and I lacked a Cuisinart or Vitamix to blend the soybeans- a crucial step in the process for making tofu.

 

So with a few extra hours on my hands (and an article on tofu due the next day), I spent an afternoon at the home of my parents, taking advantage of an industrial-strength blender, experimenting with soybeans.

 

I did plenty of reading prep beforehand. When DIY’ing in the kitchen- whether it be for marshmallows, ice cream sandwiches, pop tarts, fig newtons, or granola bars- I definitely recommend doing your research and reading through a few different recipes before rolling up your sleeves. In my case, I read and re-read Sarah’s experience, which directed me towards this website and very helpful recipe. Given my time and resources (which was a lot and many, respectively), I was also able to make a trip to the local library where I sat in the cookbook aisle for an hour and skimmed a few books about soy and tofu

 

With my tofu research session finished, I finally understood the very basic process that produced tofu: a product of fresh soy milk, separated into curds and whey, and then pressed. The magic ingredient that would produce curds in the “milk” of the soybean extract was called the coagulant, a crucial part of all tofu-making processes. The coagulant used in traditional tofu making is a Japanese ingredient called nigari, a concentration of various salts that remain after the crystallisation of salts extracted from seawater. While visiting the neighborhood Japanese supermarket one afternoon I peeked in the salts and dashi aisle, and became overwhelmed at the selection of salts and powders, none of which were labeled in English. Luckily as an alternative to nigari, Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate), fresh lemon juice, or apple cider vinegar can also be used to produce the same curdling effects. The variations in the results are seen mainly in the texture of the tofu, and only slightly affect the taste.  I decided to use some apple cider vinegar that was already in the pantry.

I procured a pound of organic soybeans from the bulk grains aisle of Whole Foods to start my tofu-making adventure. After soaking the beans overnight and waking to their plump soybean glory the next morning, I got busy boiling, grinding, cooking and straining the soybeans. Fresh soy milk, as easy as that.

 

Pressing forward, I followed instructions carefully and put my soy milk back on the stove, adding the coagulant (in my case, apple cider vinegar), and stirring as advised.  As expected, a pot full of steaming soy milk soon separated into small curds and whey. Little Miss Muffet, you’d be proud!

 

The curds were spooned into my own homemade tofu press – a rectangular plastic Tupperware container with holes punched throughout the bottoms and sides, lined with cheesecloth. With the curds weighted down with a bevy of canned ingredients, I let time do its job.

 

A short and surprising 15 minutes later, I checked on my result. There it was: the curds had compacted into one small rectangular form. Homemade tofu, firmer than I had imagined, smaller than I would have liked, and a far more crumbly than I would have preferred, but nevertheless it was tofu!

For the step-by step recipe, jump over here.

A soft serving

Sometimes when you’ve been shopping for ceramics for an hour, you need a little something sweet before you continue your day.

My mom and I ordered this vanilla soft serve with sea salt and Mandarin-flavored olive oil on a bright, sunny day in Sausalito. I’ve had desserts with sea salt, I’ve had olive oil cake and olive oil gelato, I’ve had chocolate with sea salt, but this was the first time I had ice cream with sea salt doused with olive oil.

I’m going to be drenching my ice creams in olive oil from now on. Because this flavor profile blew my mind.

Take note, really good olive oil and really great salt are needed. Really good soft serve sure doesn’t hurt, either (Nor does a mini blueberry almond pastry).

The artisanal cafe scene is definitely something that I’ve missed since I’ve been in China. In California and New York, coffee shops and cafes showcase the freshest, most local ingredients and products, eaten on long communal recycled wood tables next to pretty hipster boys and girls. My boyfriend makes fun of me for being a “hipster”, but if an artisanal cafe is where hipsters gather, I’ll happily claim the moniker.

Soft Serve and cafe photos taken at Cafe Cibo in Sausalito:

Cibo of Sausalito
1201 Bridgeway
Sausalito, CA 94965
Open Everyday, 7am-5pm

Heath Ceramics

I had dinner with my best friend at Foreign Cinema in SF to celebrate our (but, mostly hers) birthdays. She told me about a hot restaurant in the city that used Ikea plates.

“Ikea plates?! You can’t use Ikea plates in a city where Heath is on every table!”

I exclaimed this part jokingly, but also a bit sternly, and she laughed. She had told her husband the exact same thing.

I don’t know when it happened, but sometime in the last few years, San Francisco (and all my friends, it seems) pledged allegiance to Heath Ceramics. It has something to do with their locality to neighboring Sausalito and the whole “local artisan” deal, but I think it is mostly because Heath Ceramics exudes Bay Area aesthetic. That 70’s style, hippie-flavored, earth-toned, solid beauty.

My mom and I were able to make it up to Sausalito to the Heath showroom while I was home. Though we didn’t take the factory tour, we did manage to spend a whole hour in the store, selecting several worthy one-off pieces at up to 50% off their retail prices.

If you’re in the Bay Area and like to look at nice things, I’d recommend taking a drive out to Sausalito- right across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Food just looks better on pretty plates.


Heath Ceramics
400 Gate Five Road
Sausalito, CA 94965
T: (415) 332-3732 x13
Showroom Hours
Monday–Thursday
& Saturday 10–6
Friday 10–7
Sunday 11–6

 

Red Remedies

After the first couple of visits to the doctor, “rest” was all that was prescribed. Much to my drug-desperate pleas, I took her advice with serious action, not venturing out of the house for more than one hour at a time. When I finally felt well enough to move about the house, I took my mother’s prescription for some kitchen remedies, and made myself one large pot of Chicken soup and one pot of red bean soup.

Unlike the dried legumes of the Western World, Red Beans (红豆 or, adzuki beans in Japanese) are more commonly found in desserts than in any savory form. Boiled down and cooked with sugar, red bean is traditionally found in paste-form, stuffed into fluffy white pastry doughs in China or chewy unctuous mochis in Japan. In Taiwan, red beans are often cooked down in soups for an equally homeopathetic and sweet delight.

According to Dr. Mom, red foods such as red beans and dried chinese dates should be eaten to boost a person’s blood. Blood supply? Blood levels? Blood cell count? Who knows, the Chinese just say blood. So when she heard that my white blood cell count came back surprisingly low in my initial blood tests, her first reaction was to order me to make myself a pot of red bean soup. So much for sticking around the house and getting some rest, huh?

This soup might not be for everyone. If you’re like a lot of people I know, the thought of sweet beans might make you gag. Personally though, to me this soup is comforting and appealing. It can be enjoyed hot or cold, depending on the weather outside or your mood, as a snack or a dessert. It’s extremely simply, and can be plain (like the recipe I provided) or spiced up with additional ingredients, like the red chinese dates that I added, too. And according to Mom, it can cure ailments.

Chinese Red Bean Soup

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dried red beans
  • 1 medium piece of rock sugar (or, 1/4 cup brown sugar)
  • water, for soaking and boiling

Directions:

  1. Soak red beans in water overnight, or for a minimum of 4 hours.
  2. Add red beans, sugar, and about 4 cups water into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Turn down heat to low, stir a few times, and cover, letting the soup simmer for 1-2 hours. Add water for a soupier soup, or let it simmer down for less. Taste for sweetness, adding sugar to suit your tastes.
  3. Enjoy hot, or allow to cool and refrigerate for a cold snack.

 

Egg Rolls: Same Same, but Different.

Same same, but different. This is an expression that everyone knows in Thailand, and one that is heard around Asia in general. It’s something that is silkscreened on many a t-shirt seen on the streets and the subways.  It also perfectly epitomizes how I feel about the egg roll.

In the Chinese language, the appetizer that Americans know as the fried egg roll is actually called a “spring roll”, stuffed with a light vegetarian filling comprised of vermicelli, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, Chinese celery, and green onions, then lightly fried and served piping hot. Rarely does the roll take the form of those large, fried, cold, meaty and chewy chimichanga-like foodstuffs I remember from my junior high school cafeteria.

I’m Chinese-American, and I can’t recall any instances when my family sat down and ate egg rolls as part of our meal (apart from my unfortunate and unplanned run-ins with the school lunch lady), regardless of whether we were dining out or sitting around our own dining room table. I wonder, since when did egg rolls, along with the likes of one completely fabricated dish named General Tso’s chicken, represent Chinese cuisine, both in the minds and tastes of America? Having seen the delineation of various regional foods and flavors possible in the Chinese cuisine, I bow my head in disgrace for the unfortunate miscommunication that happened somewhere across the Pacific.

Wait a minute though, I suppose we did have egg rolls growing up- or at least, a dish that when translated is literally “egg”+“roll”.

Mom would make these on special occasions, usually for dinner parties, but every once in a Blue Moon on those few occasions when there was nothing going on over the weekends- no soccer games/piano recitals/basketball practice/OM meetings/birthday parties/speed reading classes/sculpture/oboe lessons/tutoring sessions/drawing classes scheduled (Tiger Mom ain’t got nothin’ on my mother).

Her egg roll was just that, a thin crepe-like layer of egg griddled into a pancake, then rolled up with a fragrantly seasoned ground pork stuffing inside. Cut thinly into bite sized pieces, on our table the egg roll would be arranged among a heap of simmered napa cabbage and vermicelli noodles.

egg roll_process

Pork is the meat of choice in China – although nowadays the country’s interest in beef (not to mention dairy) is quickly gaining ground. Year-round availability of scallions, fresh mushrooms, and ginger gives the cuisine- and this dish in particular- its signature flavors. The chopsticks as lone utensil gives reason for the deliberate slicing into bite-sized pieces, and the laborious prep countered by a quick sauté/steam in a wok is exemplary throughout all Chinese dishes.

This is an egg roll that is much more representative of Chinese cookery than any egg roll you’ve encountered in the past. It is a distant cousin to its American counterpart- but really, the relation is so distant they’re practically not related. They just somehow happen to share the same name.

For the original posting of the article and a full recipe, head over to Honest Cooking, where I am one of their newest contributors!

Mango Cucumber Salsa

We miss Mexican food a lot here. It’s like they say, you never know what you have until it’s gone- and growing up in California, where there are no shortage of tacos and burritos and hot dogs wrapped in bacon (those are Mexican, aren’t they?), we’re suffering a bit here. Not to mention, I would kill for an elote from Cafe Habana right now (plenty of fresh corn at the market- but no cojito cheese for miles!)

When the recent issue of Saveur magazine rolled around, with it’s tantalizing cover of crispy tacos and bold text boasting “Secrets of Mexican Cooking”, I was determined to find a recipe that I could recreate, or at least adapt, here in Southern China. After all, I find there to be many similarities in Asian and Latin cooking- there wasn’t that huge Asian Fusion spike in the 90’s for nothing, let me tell you…

But I soon realized that most authentic Mexican recipes call for very specific dried or fresh chiles, or the need for good tortillas- none of which I are available here. I toyed with the idea of substituting local chinese dried chilies in place of the New Mexico or Guajilo chiles. Though excellent and powerful in Chinese cuisine, I doubt they would garner the same savory Mexican flavor I am craving (would they? Does anyone know?). Perhaps my trip to Mexico City in the summer will be just as much a pantry expedition as it will a reunion with friends…

In the meantime, I’m still seeking out some good recipes and some good tricks to recreate the flavors of Mexican cuisine in my own kitchen. This weekend I made this shredded chicken taco dish again, an easy adaptation for a Guangzhou kitchen. Looking through a huge list of recently bookmarked Cinco de Mayo themed recipes, I re-discovered the website Muy Bueno Cookbook along with this recipe for a mango salad, reminiscent of the chile sprinkled mango and jicama sold from carts on the street corners in downtown LA.  Rather than a chunky salad, I preferred to scale it down to a salsa, and with magoes and cucumbers both sold prolifically at the wet market, it was a no-brainer. The recipe called for plenty of chile powder in the salad, but I wanted a more nuanced spice in this salsa, and so also grabbed from the piles of mild peppers at the market.

Cucumbers and peppers (along with taro root displayed) at the wet market

 

Growing up, I would frequently sit on a stool in the kitchen as I watched my mother cook in the kitchen.  She would educate me as she went along on the importance of cleaning up as she cooked, setting things out before she started stir frying, and making sure to wash the dishes as she went along. At the time, I thought she was just being nitpicky, and franky hated these “lectures” I got when all I wanted was to watch the garlic and ginger sizzle at the bottom of the skillet. But I now realize that she was simply teaching me the basics of what all good chefs know- setting your mise en place, making sure your workstation is sanitary and organized. Funny how everything your mom tells you when you are little suddenly makes sense when you’re older…

She also showed me other important skills, one being how to wield a knife. My mother could (and still can) pulverize garlic into the tiniest minced flecks, slice ginger into the thinnest slivers, and artfully cut carrots and firm tofu into perfectly-square little cubes. The Chinese believe that the proportion of shapes and sizes of a dishes’ components play a big part in the flavor and taste of a dish. Hence, the Chinese have an extensive vocabulary for the prep work of different cuts of meat and vegetables- significantly more than their Western friends.

Whenever I’m prepping a dish like this salsa, spending much longer than anyone typically would to make sure the shallots are appropriately, I compare them to how my mom used to do it. When people make salsa and their tomatoes are cut into huge, uneven chunks, the onions are in unappetizingly large pieces, and the cilantro is not even chopped, I am a little uneasy. Maybe you’d say I was spoiled- I’d say I was taught well. In any case, I’d consider this a secret to a good salsa, or a salad, or any freshly chopped mixed vegetable dish.


Mango Cucumber Salsa

inspired by this recipe from Muy Bueno Cookbook

Ingredients:

  • 4 small, ripe yellow mangoes
  • 3 kirby cucumbers
  • 3 shallots, minced
  • 1 small bunch chinese celery (or, one rib of regular celery), leaves discarded
  • 2 mild green peppers, minced
  • 1 mild red pepper, minced
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, stemmed and packed, finely chopped
  • juice of one lime
  • salt, to taste

Directions:

  1. Peel and cut mangoes into a small dice. The easiest way to do this, I’ve found, is to: cut the stem-end of the mango off so you can easily and securely set the mango on its end on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, slice the peel off, downwards, along the length of the mango. Keep turning and trimming the peel off until your mango is “naked”. Then carefully cut the meat off the pit in the largest slices possible, and dice from there.
  2. Seed the cucumbers, cut into spears and then a small dice
  3. Combine shallots, celery, red and green peppers with lime and salt to taste. Mix well, allowing the shallots to macerate in the lime juice to lessen its sharpness. Combine mango and cucumbers, and toss to mix thoroughly.
  4. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 20-30 minutes. Can be prepared a day ahead, if necessary, but shouldn’t be kept more than a couple of days- which probably won’t be a problem!

Yield: approx. 3 1/2 cups of salsa, or enough to feed 10-12 people for a taco dinner!