Saturday, March 27, 2010

Rice 101

Rice cake:  for an elegant presentation of your steamed white rice, wet the inside of a measuring cup with cold water, fill with steamed white rice, and invert onto a plate.  For picture-perfect presentation, garnish with green onions or toasted sesame seeds.

In honor of my father, I continue my focus on his favorite four-letter word:  r-i-c-e.  A childhood memory that’s in-grained (pun intended) in my head, revolves around the daily 4:00 hour:  time to make the rice for dinner.  Back then (in the 70s), years before Costco existed, my dad was ahead of the times when it came to bulk-buying.  He would stock up on 25 pound bags of rice from Chinatown, and dump them in a 3 foot tall, brown tin barrel, which sat in the corner of our kitchen next to the fridge.  That barrel represented an endless pit of rice.  I don’t recall ever seeing the bottom of that barrel, probably because my dad would panic that we’d run out and re-fill it before it got even halfway empty.

When you took the lid off the tin barrel, a light-blue, plastic teacup always sat at the top of the rice pile.  Five, level cups of rice would be precisely measured and carefully poured into the aluminum rice pot insert, making a distinct crisp, tinkling sound when the hard rice grains hit the bottom of the pot.  By the mid-70s, my mom had probably made about a thousand pots of rice.  So she finally came to her senses and taught my sisters and brother how to make rice as soon as they were old enough.  So “rice duty” became a weekly rotating chore for them to share.  I always knew when it was 4:00 because I would hear one of my siblings moan and groan about having to make rice.  No more “Speed Racer”; go make the rice!

Since I was the youngest, I was lucky enough to fly under the radar and escape the rice duty rotation.  Years later, the downside to that was that I never really knew how to properly make a pot of rice!  It would come out too hard, too mushy, too overcooked, or just plain too stuck to the bottom of the pot!  Pretty embarrassing for a Chinese girl.  Here are some “Rice 101” basics, so you don’t have to learn the hard way (trial-and-error), like me.
1.      Choosing the rice – Many of the recipes on my blog list “steamed white rice” as an accompaniment.  For all my Chinese cooking, I use Niko Niko Calrose white rice.  You can find small, five pound bags at your mainstream grocery store (in the Asian food

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Please pass the rice!

If there’s such a thing as a “rice-eating gene”, it definitely runs in my family.  Or perhaps it originated in my family.  For as long as I can remember, my dad has always loved rice.  He wholeheartedly believes that a meal is not complete without it.  All our relatives and family friends are very aware of dad’s rice fixation.  Even when my mom would occasionally stray away from the wok and roast a traditional prime rib for dinner, that Chinese rice pot always made its way onto the Lazy Susan, right next to the au jus.  (Au jus-over-steamed-white rice, anyone?  It’s actually not bad.)  Don’t worry, I won’t be posting a recipe for that on my blog.  
A tribute to dad’s love affair with rice:  his 60th birthday cake (17 years ago) was decorated with a bowl of rice and chopsticks (made out of marzipan).  Also pictured, from left, my grandpa (who I mentioned in my Chinese New Year story, who didn’t really have a glass eye), my mom, and my nephew, Steven.

But one particular Chinese dish that brings out the “rice-eating gene” in everyone in my family is Mapo Tofu.  This spicy bean curd recipe has such a tasty flavor, you must eat it over steamed rice to soak up every drop of savory sauce.  I have to admit, “bean curd” does not sound like the most appetizing food.  Plus, it doesn’t exactly look that appealing either.  But this dish is definitely a mouth-watering favorite for everyone in our immediate family.  Even all the kids, ranging from 8 years to 21 years, just love it.  They always come back for more, which means my mom always make sure she has plenty of rice.  Who knows?  After you try it, you may just catch the “rice-eating gene” yourself!

Mapo Tofu (Spicy Tofu)

Fresh blocks of tofu are easy to find these days.  I buy Trader Joe’s Organic Tofu, which has a firmer texture and therefore holds up better during stir frying.  However, if you use a regular (non-organic) block of tofu, it could be a bit softer and may not hold its shape as well.  To help avoid this, after you cut your tofu into ½” cubes, add them to a pot of boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain completely before using in this recipe.  Or, just buy "Firm" tofu.

Serves 4
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Sambal Oelek chili paste* (found in Asian section of most supermarkets)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground red cayenne pepper*
2 teaspoons corn starch
4 teaspoons cold water
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 ounces ground pork**
19 ounces fresh tofu, drained and cut into ½” cubes
3/4 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped green onions

Steamed white rice or brown rice

In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, chili paste, salt, and cayenne pepper; set aside.  In a smaller bowl, dissolve the corn starch in the water; set aside.  Heat vegetable oil in a large wok or deep sauté pan over high heat.  Add ground pork, breaking into smallest pieces possible, and stir-fry until cooked through, about 2-3 minutes.  Add tofu, gently stir-fry for about 30 seconds; add reserved sauce and stir-fry until sauce is evenly distributed, about 1 minute.  Add chicken broth; continue to stir fry for about 1 minute.  Add corn starch and water mixture; stir fry until sauce begins to thicken, about 2 minutes.  Remove from heat; sprinkle with green onions.  Serve over steamed white rice or brown rice.

*Note: this is a 4 star spicy dish; to alter the spiciness down to 3 stars or 2 stars, decrease the amounts of red cayenne pepper and chili paste to 2/3 or ½ the amounts listed  in the recipe.

**Another note:  the smallest quantities of ground pork at the grocery store come in packages ranging from ½ pound to ¾ pound.  (If you don’t have a kitchen scale to measure 2 ounces and want to go by a “visual measure”, it’s about ¼ cup of ground pork).  What do you do with the leftover ground pork?  Divide it up into individual 2 ounce portions and freeze for next time.  Wrap tightly in plastic wrap first, then wrap again in aluminum foil.  Store all these little packages in a large re-sealable bag in the freezer.  They will thaw out quickly for the next time you make Mapo Tofu.