It’s Lunar New Year this weekend, my first Lunar New Year at home in seven years. Back in LA, I did have some sort of celebration every year, but it could never compare to actually being at home for it – the bustling streets filled with peach blossoms and kumquat trees, the nippy cold (it’s been annoyingly warm these last two weeks, but as luck would have it, it’s going to cool down tomorrow), the smell of incense in the air, the excitement of preparing food and decorating the house… It’s better than Christmas, because with Christmas even when you’re not with your family you can still feel the atmosphere, but with Lunar New Year, you pretty much have to be in the country where it’s widely celebrated (Chinatown doesn’t count) to get the truest sense of the holiday.
Anyway, one of my favorite traditions of the Lunar New Year is the making of rice cakes (bánh chưng). It’s a cake made of sticky rice, mung bean paste, and pork, wrapped in arrowroot leaves and boiled. It may sound simple, but there are a lot of little details involved, from the quality of the ingredients to how you wrap and boil the cakes, to get the perfect rice cakes – everything tender but not mushy, the rice green from the arrowroot leaves, the bean paste bright yellow, the pork cooked through but still pink. Here is how my family makes our rice cakes (it’s not an actual recipe because everything is eyeballed, but I thought it’d be fun to share with you guys):
What You Need:
– Three parts sticky rice, one part mung beans, one part fatty pork (we usually do 6 kg of rice; 3 cups of rice per cake)
– Fish sauce, salt, pepper, onions or shallot
– Arrowroot leaves (you need at least four per cake), bamboo strings
1. Soak the rice and the beans up to 12 hours. Let dry, salt them well. Cut the pork into two-inch pieces. Marinate the pork in fish sauce, pepper, and onions.
2. Steam the beans, mash them into a paste (it looks a lot like mash potatoes actually.)
3. Now you’re ready to wrap the cake! There are a lot of ways to wrap a rice cake, but since the cakes have to be a perfect square, most people like to most a mold. My dad usually cuts the arrowroot leaves (carefully washed and dried) and folds them into a box. It’s a little more complicated than using a mold, but it’s easier to wrap once you get the box shape down. Put in a cup of rice, then a layer of bean paste, a couple of pieces of pork, followed by another layer of bean paste and another layer of rice. Make sure that the leaves are touching the rice on the right side, or the cake won’t be green enough. Fold the tops of your “box” down and secure it with bamboo strings.
4. You can also wrap the cakes the Southern way – simply lay down the leaves, put the ingredients on top, and roll it all up into a cylinder. But then it’s called bánh tét instead of bánh chưng.
5. Put your cakes into a cauldron that’s been lined with more arrowroot leaves, put in enough water to cover them, and boil them. The boiling time depends on how many cakes you have, of course, but with 20 cakes, we always have to boil them for at least 12 hours. The cauldron is important too – cauldrons made out of zinc are best because they keep the leaves green (as you can see below); aluminum will turn them an unappetizing brownish yellow.
And that’s about it. We’ve only cut one of the mini cakes my dad made for my niece from leftovers, saving the big ones for the Lunar New Year feast on Monday, but as far as we can tell, they all turned out perfectly. OK, I’m off to finish cleaning up, so have a great weekend everybody! I know I will.
We’ve all heard of lemon and honey as a home remedy for sore throat. As somebody with chronic sore throat, I’ve tried it before, but it’s never worked for me (I’m not sure if “chronic sore throat” is a thing or not, but for me it means that every year, as soon as the first cold snap hits, I’ll get a sore throat no matter now carefully I bundle up.) But this year, when I tried my sister’s lemon and honey, it works wonder. So what does she do differently?
The answer is time. You don’t just put lemon and honey together, you let the lemon steep in honey as long as possible. Here’s the recipe (actually it’s too simple to be called a recipe):
What you need:
– Lemons (or limes. Actually any citrus will work.) As many as you want.
– Enough honey to steep the lemons in.
– A clean jar
Instruction:– Clean and dry the lemons well. Cut into thin slices.
– Put the lemon slices into the jar, feel free to pack them in. Pour in enough honey to cover the lemons. Make sure to keep them completely submerged in honey.
– Close the jar tightly. Store in a dry place for at least a week before use. It’s better the longer you let it sit.
Since November my throat has been scratchy plenty of times, but three spoonfuls of this lemony honey a day (plus chewing on the lemon slices, which helps a lot too) clear it right up. It’s really amazing.
Nutella is like crack to me. So when I found the recipe for homemade Nutella here, I knew I might as well succumb to my addiction. Plus I always prefer homemade.
What You Need:
2 C hazelnuts
2 C dark chocolate
Sweetened condensed milk
1/2 C hot milk
A food processor
1. Spread the hazelnuts in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast in a 350oF oven for about 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can do it in a pan on the stove.
2. Let cool completely. My hazelnuts still have their skins on, so I put them on a clean kitchen towel and rubbed them with another towel to get rid of the skin. Once they’re cool, grind them up in a food processor to make hazelnut butter (I only have a puny food processor, so after 15 minutes of pulsing, my butter still came out a little lumpy.)
3. Melt your chocolate (I just stuck it in the microwave.) Add the sweetened condensed milk, until it is sweet enough for your taste. I found it easier to mix the condensed milk if I loosened it up with a bit of hot water first.
4. Mix the chocolate and the hazelnut butter together in the food processor. If it’s too thick, add the hot milk a little at a time until it’s creamy.
5. Transfer to a container. Or eat it right out of the food processor with a spoon like I did 😀
I haven’t done a recipe post since the New Year because of all the back-to-back style challenges, so here’s the first recipe of the year, which combines two of my favorite things: banana bread and coconut. Recipe adapted from here.
What You Need:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 medium overripe bananas, mashed (about 1 cup)
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup sweetened coconut flakes (or shredded coconut)
1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a loaf pan and set aside (I used a 9×9 pan, which worked out fine.)
2. Stir together the mashed bananas, coconut milk, oil, sugar and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
3. Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Gradually mix the dry ingredients with the wet until just combined. Stir in the coconut flakes.
4. Pour batter into pan (I like a lot of coconut, so I sprinkled some of top as well.) Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool completely before slicing.
Because everybody in my family (except for me) studied in Germany, when we do celebrate Christmas it is with German traditions. And one of those traditions is the Stollen, the German Christmas bread. I haven’t been able to find the exact kind here in the US, so I’ve been making it myself for a couple of years now. It doesn’t taste quite the same, but it’s fun to make, and it helps me feel closer to home.
ETA: Recipe adapted from here.
What You Need:
1 tablespoon yeast
2/3 C warm milk
1/3 C sugar
1/3 C butter, softened
1/2 tablespoon salt
2 1/2 C bread flour
1/3 C each currants, raisins and candied cherries (quartered)
2/3 C candied citrus peel (I got a tub of mixed dried fruits for fruitcake and used 1 C of it in place of the cherries and peel)
1 ts each ground ginger and allspice
6 oz. marzipan (found in the baking isle)
About 2 tablespoons melted butter and powdered sugar, for dusting
1. Dissolve yeast in the milk (I also added 1/2 tablespoon sugar to help the yeast along), let stand until foamy.
2. In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture with the sugar, butter, egg, salt and 2 C flour. Mix well. Add the remaining flour, a little at a time, until the dough begins to pull away from the side of the bowl. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface, knead in the dried fruits, ginger and allspice, until smooth, about 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, make sure it’s coated with oil. Cover and let rise for 1 hour.
4. After the dough has doubled, punch it down and roll it out. Shape the marzipan into a log and place in the middle. Fold the dough over, pinch the seams together to seal. Place the loaf, seam side down, on a baking sheet. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise for 30 to 45 minutes.
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce to 300 degrees F and bake for 30 to 40 minutes more. Let cool completely. Pour the melted butter over the loaf and dust it with powdered sugar (the traditional loaf is rolled in powdered sugar, but I find that a little too sweet.) Enjoy!
Here is another traditional Vietnamese recipe, and a staple on my family’s dinner table. Usually it’s pork cooked with coconut water and coconut meat, but since I once almost cut my fingers off trying to remove the coconut meat from its shell, we’ll make do with coconut milk.
What You Need:
3 pounds pork butt or shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 c light coconut milk
1/4 C sugar
2 C water
Salt & pepper
Optional: 5 to 6 hard-boiled eggs
1. Make the caramel sauce (I know it sounds weird, but it’s to give the pork its color. And it’s not real caramel, since it’s only cooked sugar and water): in a pot over low heat, cook the sugar until it browns. Add the water (don’t be scared if it sizzles) and cook until the sugar is completely dissolved. You want something in this color:
2. Salt and pepper the pork. You can add more salt later if it’s not enough for your taste. In a large pot, sear the pork well. Add the caramel water and the coconut milk, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let it simmer until the pork is tender, about an hour.
3. If making the caramel is too daunting for you, you can use soy sauce and/or oyster sauce to achieve the color (I got this from a friend who works in a Vietnamese restaurant), but it will taste a little different. And remember to cut back on the salt if you do so.
4. During the last 20 minutes of cooking, add the peeled hard-boiled eggs (if used), make sure they’re submerged in the cooking liquid. Serve hot over rice. Enjoy!