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My favorite fondue is the classic Swiss variety with Gruyére, Emmenthaler and Appenzeller.  My brother, though, is a rather fussy eater and finds it too sharp.  Since he was here for dinner tonight, we opted for this English variant instead.  With apple cider (some hard, some sweet) as it’s liquid base and cheddar cheese, my brother thought it sounded ok.  It was ok – but I still prefer Swiss.  I also remembered (but only after it was too late) that every fondue I’ve made from the book I got this recipe from came out too thin.  Got to remember to cut the liquid in half next time!

Recipe

Source: The Book of Fondues by Lorna Rhodes

1 small onion
1 c. hard apple cider (but I’d use considerably less – 1/2-3/4 c.)
1 tsp. lemon juice
3/4 lb. shredded Cheddar cheese (if you can get it, use a really good one, not your typical supermarket vareity – I used Cabot Clothbound this time)
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1 tbs. cornstarch
3 tbs. sweet apple cider/juice
A little white pepper

If you bought your Cheddar whole (which is best) grate it using the grating blade of your food processor if you have one, or the course holes on a hand grater.  Cut the onion in half and rub it all over the inside of the pot in which you’re going to cook your fondue (I do it right in the fondue pot, but not all fondue pots can go directly on the stove).  Put the hard cider and lemon juice in the pot and start it heating over medium heat.  While the liquid is heating, mix together the sweet cider, cornstarch and mustard in a small bowl.  Once the liquid is hot, add the cheese a handful at a time, stirring each new addition until it melts.  At first you will see distinct bits of cheese in the liquid, but as you add more cheese it will start to smooth out.  If it starts to boil you can turn the heat down a bit.  Once all the cheese is incorporated, add the sweet cider/cornstarch/mustard mixture (give a good stir first) and a sprinkling of finely ground white pepper.  Stir the cheese until it starts to thicken.  If you used the full amount of hard cider, then this is going to end up pretty thin no matter what you do.  Serve it with apples and a good, crusty, solid bread cut into bite-sized pieces.

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Recently I’ve been craving my standard weekday breakfast from my time in China: 煎饼 (jian bing).  Jian bing is a typical Beijing street food, sort of like a crepe and an omelet fused together, seasoned with delectable sauces, cilantro and green onion, then filled with a crunchy cracker.  Fortunately, before we left China, I thought to ask for the name of the main sauce.  It’s English name is sweet flour (or sweet noodle) sauce.  It did take a trip to China town and a bit of legwork to find, but I got it, along with shrimp sauce and Chinese chili paste.  Whole Foods supplied millet flour and I was ready to go.  You’ll want several basting brushes (preferably with heat-resistant silicone bristles) for applying the sauces.  Although it sounds like a lot of instructions, these are actually quite quick to make (aside from the wait time for the batter).

Recipe

1/2 c. millet flour
1/4 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. whole milk
5 eggs
3/4 tsp. salt
3 tbs. vegetable oil (plus more for frying)
2 tbs. roughly chopped cilantro
2 tbs. chopped green onion (scallion)
Sweet flour sauce
Shrimp sauce (optional)
Chili sauce (optional)
Wonton wrappers (you can often get these at the supermarket either fresh or frozen)

To make the batter, sift together the two kinds of flour and the salt.  If you can’t find millet flour, you can definitely experiment with other flour blends – all whole wheat, whole wheat and white, buckwheat, etc.  I would advise always using at least partially wheat flour (whole wheat or white).  I am not sure the batter will hang together well enough if you use all gluten-free flours, but if you are gluten-sensitive you could certainly experiment with 100% millet or similar.  In a blender combine 3 eggs, the milk and the sifted flour mixture and blend until smooth.  You can also do this in a bowl with a whisk.  Let the batter rest for at least an hour.  Just before you’re ready to start cooking, whisk in the 3 tbs. of oil (I used grapeseed, but you could use soy, peanut, or any other relatively flavorless vegetable oil – definitely don’t use olive oil, though).

To prepare to assemble jian bing, break the remaining 2 eggs into a small bowl and beat lightly (just to break up a bit).  Chop your cilantro and green onions and mix them together.  Put a tablespoon or two of the sweet flour sauce in a small bowl (I use a ramekin or custard cup) and blend it with a tablespoon or two of water to think it out to an easily brush-on-able consistency.  If your chili paste is very thick you may want to thin it a bit too.  Chili paste is often made with an oil base so you may find it easier to think with a bit of vegetable oil.  The same applies for shrimp sauce if you choose to use it.  I am not 100% certain that shrimp sauce is the right third sauce, but it was the only pink-ish sauce we saw and I remember there being a pink-ish sauce.  I made the first jian bing with the shrimp sauce to test it out and didn’t care for the flavor.  I think at least some jian bing makers may use it, but the ones whose jian bing I loved, maybe not.  In any case, I left it off the remaining ones.

To create the crunchy cracker filling, heat about 1/2 in. of vegetable oil in a pan.  When it’s very hot, slip in the wonton wrappers 1-2 at a time.  They should get large bubbles all over pretty quickly.  After a minute or two, turn them over and cook for another minute or so.  They should be a nice golden brown all over.  Drain them on paper towels.  I found that they tended to curve a little.  I put them concave side down on the theory that more oil would drain off that way.  Fry up one wrapper for each jian bing you intend to make.  With the size hot plates the jian bing makers in Beijing have, 1/person is plenty.  I found that 2-3/person of the size I have the facilities to make was about right.

Now you’re ready to begin cooking your jian bing.  Heat a large, frying pan (preferably non-stick, and preferably of the variety with relatively shallow, sloping sides) over medium heat or very slightly higher.  When the pan is hot, brush it with a bit of vegetable oil.  Pour in a few tablespoons of the crepe batter (don’t forget to whisk the oil into the batter first).  The amount you need will vary depending on the size of your pan.  Swirl the batter around quickly to coat the bottom of the pan thinly and evenly.  In China they then break an egg directly onto the crepe and spread it out in a thin layer.  Since their eggs are smaller and crepes bigger, I found that 1/2 egg/crepe is about right (I was using a 10 in. pan) which is why I break the eggs into a bowl and beat them a bit.  Pour a tablespoon or two of egg (about 1/2 egg) onto your crepe as soon as the top no longer looks liquid.  Smear the egg out to cover the top of the crepe in a thin layer.  Sprinkle on a little of the cilantro/scallion mixture.  As soon as the egg is no longer runny, flip your jian bing over.  Quickly brush the crepe with a thin layer of each sauce you’re using.  I usually cover the whole surface with the sweet flour sauce, but just put a little chili sauce on.  Place one of the fried wonton wrappers in the middle, and fold the side of the crepe up to cover the wonton wrapper.  Use your spatula to crumble the wonton wrapper up some.  Slide out of the pan and eat.  Yum!

The batter recipe should make 8-12 crepes, depending on size.   The total amount of egg, scallion and cilantro listed is actually only enough for about 4 10 in. jian bing.  Just figure 1 egg and 1 tbs. each of cilantro and green onion will make about 2 10 in. jian bing.  Use however many eggs and herbs you need for the number you want to make.

You can definitely cut the batter recipe in half if you want to.  I am also going to experiment with cooking extra crepes and freezing them so I need only defrost them and pick up with the “smear with egg” step.  Also, wonton wrapper tend to come in packs of about a zillion.  They can definitely be frozen, though.  I’ll probably separate them into small stacks, then wrap and freeze each stack separately so I don’t have to thaw dozens to get just 4-6 when I want to make some jian bing.  The sauces should keep pretty much indefinitely in the fridge.

If you have trouble finding the ingredients, you should be able to order them online.  Your best bet for sweet flour sauce is Asian Food Grocer.   Any supermarket will have some kind of chili paste/sauce that will do.  Shrimp paste/sauce is optional and you can definitely do without, but if you want to try it, Asian Food Grocer will probably work.  My Whole Foods had millet flour so that wasn’t a problem, but if you don’t find it, I googled it and found plenty of places to buy it online.  Or, as I mentioned, you can experiment with other flours.

A few notes on authenticity.  I am quite confident in my use of sweet flour sauce for the main sauce.  It definitely tasted right.  Similarly for the cilantro and green onion (although I’ve had some that used regular onion instead).  The crepe batter was pretty much a guess.  I just picked a whole wheat crepe recipe I’ve used before then substituted millet flour for some of the wheat flour.  I was pretty sure they’d use millet flour in China and the crepe it produced had the yellow-ish color and a similar taste and texture to what I ate in China.  I would guess they use soy milk rather than regular milk, but I opted for regular since I hate soy milk and would just end up throwing out whatever didn’t go into the batter.  Also, I have zero experience cooking with soy milk and had no clue how I might need to adjust the recipe to accommodate any differences in cooking characteristics.  Also, I suspect they may use less egg and more milk in the batter than I did, but don’t know for sure.  I am sure the crispy, friend filling crackers they use aren’t precisely like wonton wrappers, but wonton wrappers are a suitable size and produce just the right texture.  At any rate, what I produced was close enough to what I picked up every day on my way to work to satisfy my craving.

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Not much cooking tonight thanks for a dinner invitation from the upstairs neighbor/landlord. My contribution was a simple salad. Mixed greens, cherry tomatoes (the only kind that have any texture/flavor at all this time of year) and a few dried cherries dressed with this quick and easy mustard vinaigrette. Put a teaspoon or so of your favorite mustard (smooth is probably better than whole-grain) in a small bowl (cup, measuring cup, or whatever is convenient). Add a little salt and fresh ground pepper. Squeeze a clove of garlic through a garlic press into the bowl (if you don’t have a garlic press just chop it fine). Add a few tablespoons of good balsamic vinegar. Use a small whisk to blend the ingredients then slowly stream in 1/4-1/2 cup of good olive oil, beating steadily. Your dressing should emulsify (turn into a smooth-ish brown goo). Taste it and add more of whatever you think it needs. If it doesn’t emulsify, don’t worry about it, just give it a good stir before you put it on the salad. Et voila (as our hosts might say).

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Snacking Around

Snacking around is my husband’s term for what we do when we’re not hungry enough for a real meal and instead just eat odds and ends of whatever happens to be in the fridge.  Tonight that meant a big salad for him and eggs and salad for me.  I learned to make salad dressing from my uncle David.  Here’s my adaptation of what he taught me:

Recipe

1 clove garlic
1-2 tbs. finely chopped fresh herbs (I like to use rosemary, thyme and marjoram, but you can experiment with different blends or just use whatever you have on hand)
salt
freshly ground pepper
2-3 tbs. good vinegar (I prefer balsamic, but again, you can experiment)
1/4 c. (more-or-less) good extra virgin olive oil (if you are ever going to splurge on great olive oil, this should be one of the places you use it)

Coarsely chop the garlic then us a fork to mash it up with the herbs and a little salt (start with about 1/2 tsp. although I usually use a bit more) and freshly ground pepper.  You should get a sort of a paste.  Put it in a cup or jar then add the vinegar and olive oil and give it a good stir.  Ideally let it sit for 20-30 minutes while you get other parts of your meal ready (now is a good time to wash the lettuce and chop up the other veggies for your salad).  This will amply dress a salad that will serve 4-6 normal people or 1 person if he eats salad like my dad or my husband.

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It’s snowy and cold outside and I’m getting over a couple of days not feeling so good.  It’s a perfect day for easy comfort food and pasta is my favorite.  I always have at least a couple of kinds of homemade sauce in the freezer, but tonight I’m in the mood for something quasi-fresh.  This super-easy tomato sauce is quick, tasty and I always have the ingredients on hand.  I originally found the recipe in Naples at Table by Arthur Schwarz.  Here’s how I make it:

Recipe

3 large cloves garlic
1/4 c. olive oil
1 large can tomatoes (I like to use strained for a smooth sauce, but if you prefer your sauce chunkier use chopped or whole)
2-3 tbs. coarsely chopped fresh basil or parsley or 1-2 tsp. dried basil (don’t use dried parsley – it has no flavor)
salt and crushed red pepper to taste
1 1/2 lb. spaghetti or other long pasta
freshly grated Parmesan to taste

Start plenty of water heating to cook the pasta (I use an 8 qt. stock pot to cook 1 lb. of pasta).  Use the flat of a knife to lightly crush the garlic.  Remove the peel and place cloves in a large skillet with the olive oil.  Heat over medium-low.  Turn the garlic cloves occasionally.  When the start to color remove them.  Add the tomatoes and turn the heat up to somewhere between medium and medium-high.  If you are using whole tomatoes crush them some with the back of a spoon or a potato masher.  Add some salt (start with about 1/2 tsp.) and crushed red pepper.  If you’re using dried basil add it now, too.  Let the tomatoes simmer uncovered while you finish cooking the pasta.  You’ll need to stir the tomatoes now and then to prevent burning.  Also, be aware that they may splatter.  I like to use a mesh splatter screen to help reduce clean up problems.  Don’t cover them with a solid lid, though, or they won’t concentrate enough.  Once the sauce has started thickening taste it and add additional seasonings as you wish.  Add fresh basil in the last minute or so of cooking.  When the pasta water is hot add plenty of salt (I usually use about 3 tbs. if I’m cooking in an 8 qt. pot).  Don’t skimp on the salt because this is the only way you get seasoning in the pasta itself.  If you have a big enough skillet to toss the sauce and pasta together in the skillet, then remove the pasta 1-2 minutes before it is done, drain it and add it to the sauce in the skillet.  If your skillet isn’t big enough, cook the pasta until it is just done, then add the sauce to the pasta in the serving bowl.  Never, never run your pasta under cold water after straining it.  You won’t have any trouble with it sticking together if you add the sauce promptly.  If you think the sauce isn’t quite ready when the pasta is done, add a little olive oil or butter to your pasta to help prevent sticking while you finish up the sauce.  If you want to, you can garnish the pasta with a little more chopped fresh herbs.  Allow diners to add their own freshly grated Parmesan to taste (I like to just put a block of Parmesan and a grater on the table and let everyone grate their own).

Notes

Total time: 3o minutes
Active time: 15 minutes
Special equipment: mesh splatter-screen (optional)
Shopping/ingredient tips:

  • Use good quality Italian boxed pasta (DeCecco is fine and widely available although I like Del Verde and some of the smaller brands a little better), preferably a long, round shape (spaghetti, spaghettini or buccatini).
  • Use a good brand of tomatoes.  I like the Parmalat ones that come in the box or the San Marzano ones that have the old-fashioned white labels.
  • There is no need to use expensive olive oil here.  The cooking will break down a lot of the flavor elements anyway.  Do use extra virgin, but a regular grocery store variety will be fine.

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