Happy New Year Hunan Style

Happy New Year’s Eve!

I had a very eventful Christmas with my sister and her family in Virginia. Surprisingly, cooking wasn’t at the forefront of my holiday this year. Instead, I was treated to my sister’s Polish-influenced cooking (her husband is of Eastern European descent). I particularly enjoyed her beet juice and tortellini soup.

Now, I’m back in Chicago and ready to do some catching up in the kitchen.

I’m a Christmas baby, born four days after the holiday and this year I went to the newly opened Lao Hunan in Chicago’s Chinatown for my celebratory dinner. The always fabulous Chicago Reader rated it one of the best new restaurants of 2011 and the proprietor, Tony Hu, is dedicated to bringing authentic regional Chinese cuisine to Chicago. Hu has established himself as “The King of Chinatown,” with four other restaurants, Lao Shanghai, Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, and Lao Yu Ju. Having already tried and loved Lao Sze Chuan I was dying to try Lao Hunan.

I thought the décor was a touch gimmicky with a giant portrait of Mao Zedong and the words “Serving People” blazing across the wall of the dining room and the wait staff wearing communist army uniforms. But the food. Oh, the food. This was my first time trying Hunan cuisine and I loved the chilies, garlic and ginger in every dish. I ordered the Stewed Tofu Xiang Xi Style for my main course, which was deliciously spiced, but the stand out of the evening was the wood ear mushroom salad.

The menu simply calls the dish “Healthy Wood Ear Salad,” but it doesn’t do justice to the complex flavors and textures of the mushrooms and marinade. Wood ear mushrooms are spongey, slightly gelatinous mushrooms that look like ears. I was somewhat hesistant, but my first bite won me over. The wood ear mushroom has a toothsome, fleshy texture and a flavor of wood and earth. A little research reveals that is has been used for medicinal purposes in the East for hundreds of years and it has proven cancer fighting properties.

Here’s my variation based purely on my tasting the dish at Lao Hunan. Not having access to the actual recipe means that I could be missing something, but I think this comes close.

Marinated Wood Ear Salad Hunan Style
8oz dried wood ear mushrooms
1 cup boiling water (to rehydrate the mushrooms)
2 tblsp rice vinegar
3 tblsp chili oil
1 tsp dried chili flakes
1 small diced chili pepper(a jalapeno works just fine)
1 small chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
2 large cloves of garlic sliced
1 tsp Chinese Five Spice (or a mixture of star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, cinnamon, cloves and fennel seed)
Tamari (or other soy sauce) to taste
1-2 scallions, chopped

In a bowl, pour the boiling water over the mushrooms. Let set for 15-20mins until mushrooms are fully rehydrated. The mushrooms will be slightly rubbery, yet soft. If the mushroom feels hard or very chewy, let them continue to soak. Once fully re-hydrated, drain and squeeze out any excess water.

In a pan on low heat, add chili oil, chilies, ginger, garlic and spices until the garlic and chilies are slightly soft but not browned (about 2-3mins).

Add the rehydrated mushrooms and cook on medium heat for a few minutes to further soften the mushroom. The heat allows the mushrooms to absorb the flavors of the spices. Add vinegar and tamari. Remove from heat. Put in fridge to cool. Once cool, serve with chopped scallions.

Last year, I resolved to challenge myself in the kitchen and for the most part I stuck to my resolution. Yeast breads no longer terrify me and I’m gaining more confidence with pastry. This year, rather than claim that I want to lose weight or get fit, I am going to focus on eating and preparing healing, wholesome food. I want to focus on food as medicine and cooking as therapeutic. I think that’s definitely a manageable goal.

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Ginger Nut Cookies

It’s cookie time in the Oliver-Turner household. In anticipation of the holidays I’m rolling up my shirtsleeves and getting out the sticks of butter. I’m traveling to DC/Virginia this year to spend Christmas with my sister, brother-in-law and nephews, and currently studying up on my cookie craft.
This sounds incredible, but I haven’t spent a single holiday season with children in my adult life. I’m looking forward to taking part in their joy and excitement and I think me and Chris are both giddy about the toy shopping.

My sister and I are planning an epic cookie-fest for sometime during the holiday week leading up to Christmas. I will be bringing along my famous chocolate chip pecan cookie recipe, and I’m excited to add to my repertoire ginger nut cookies. Inspired by Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which I read just recently. In the story, an eccentric scrivener, working at a law office in the early half of the 19th Century, refuses to continue with his work. Throughout the story, the narrator, Bartleby’s employer, notices that he seems to only eat crunchy ginger nut cakes. If I could, I would only eat these spicy ginger nut cookies, but alas, I’ll have to settle for them on occasion.

Ginger Nut Cookies
Dry ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking powder

Wet Ingredients:
½ cup softened butter
¼ cup oil (I used walnut), you can also sub shortening.
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg (you can add another egg if you want a softer texture)
¼ cup dark molasses
¼cup + extra for finishing, finely chopped walnuts and almonds

Preheat oven 350F.

In a large bowl combine dry ingredients. Stir together and set aside.

In another bowl, cream together the butter, oil and sugar. You can use an electric mixer; I use a flat, wooden paddle spoon. Once the butter/sugar mixture is well mixed and fluffy, add in the egg and beat for a minute or two. Add the molasses and nuts. Slowly stir in the dry mixture. The dough will be slightly sticky.

Roll dough into balls, about 1Tblsp large, place on a lined baking sheet. The cookies will spread quite a bit, so be sure to place them with a little room between each. Garnish with chopped nut mixture. Bake 15mins.

I think I’m going to go enjoy these cookies with a cup of cheer.


Roasted Eggplant Stew

The chill of a Chicago November is really something to be reckoned with; the cold here has claws. We’re going on three years in the Midwest and I haven’t acclimated at all. I’m beginning to think I’ll never get used to this. At least the frost motivates me to get in the kitchen, fire up the oven and heat the apartment with the steam of bubbling pots, the warmth of baking bread. This eggplant stew is a bit labor intensive, but it will warm you to the core.

Roasted Eggplant Stew
2 large eggplants
2 Tblsp unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
2 small celery stalks, minced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2tsp cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
Black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1-2 bay leaves
1-2 tsp sea salt
6-8 cups water or stock
1/4 cup sour cream or plain yogurt

Start with two, large, firm eggplants peeled and cubed. Sprinkle with sea salt and olive oil and roast for 35-40mins at 400F. Sure, I could just stew the eggplant in a pot, but roasting beforehand imparts a deep, smoky flavor.

Next, mash the roasted eggplant to a fine pulp. This step isn’t necessary if you’re planning on using a hand blender. Since I don’t have one and I prefer to limit the electric appliances, I hand mash with a potato masher.

Now, in a 6quart pot, over medium heat, melt the butter until hot. Add the minced onions, celery and garlic. Cook until softened. Then add your spices, stock, and eggplant puree and sour cream/yogurt. Simmer for 15-20mins to allow the flavors to come together.

The cumin, garlic and cayenne give a wonderful warming quality. I prefer a spicy tingle to my stew and use the cayenne liberally.

Here’s to the long winter ahead. We can get through this!


Holiday Gift Ideas for Your Favorite Foodie

I will begin by saying that my husband knows that I love food related gifts for any occasion. Christmas, birthdays, the anniversary, I’m happy with anything that makes cooking even more fun, easy or exciting. Actually, he has known this from the very beginning. I will never forget the very first present he ever gave me: a bag filled with gift-wrapped veggies. It doesn’t sound great, or even interesting, but it was one of the sweetest gifts I’ve ever received. At the time, I was vegan and courting a vegan girl is not an easy task for a non-vegan boy. One day, while I was away at work, he left a giant blue bag with my roommate and I arrived home to find it filled with strangely shaped, brightly wrapped objects festooned with bows. I ripped open the presents to find that he had individually gift-wrapped an eggplant, an artichoke, a pepper, a bottle of kalamata olives, and lastly, a bag of vegan cookies.

*Swoon*

He’s had a hard time outdoing himself ever since.
Although, last Christmas he got me a lovely French cookbook and before that a wok set, he sometimes misses the mark. Like the time that he got me a giant, magnetic oven timer that sticks to the fridge….for my birthday! To his credit I’ve never let on that I would like anything else. Leave the diamonds to Marilyn Monroe, I’ll take a slow cooker and a bamboo steamer any day.

Unfortunately, most people wouldn’t appreciate a bag of produce for the Holidays. Which is why I’ve taken the time to round up some of my favorite kitchen gadgets just in case anyone out there is wondering what I’d love Santa to send me *wink *wink.

Click on the title for a link to Amazon.


The Ronco Five-Tray Electric Food Dehydrator
I distinctly remember watching infomercials for this item in the early ’90s. I’ve always wanted to make my own fruit leather.


Kotobuki 2-Tiered Panda Bento Box
I can’t think of a reason why I wouldn’t want a Panda Shaped Bento box.


RSVP Endurance Stainless Steel Food Mill

This one might seem a little strange, but personally I’ve wanted a potato ricer for ages. It’s not really necessary, as I prefer to mash potatoes by hand anyway, but I’m enticed by the prospect of “silky mashed potatoes.” Also, you can apparently make a ton of other useful things like tomato sauce and apple sauce, all without electricity! I need silky mashed potatoes for the zombie Apocalypse!


Reusable Produce Bags
For the eco-conscious consumer (and really, we all should be eco-conscious by now) these bags are fantastic. I try and avoid using plastic packaging whenever I can and it breaks my heart a little to visit the produce aisle and have to use those flimsy plastic bags for everything.


Demarle Silpat Non-Stick Baking Mat
Beautiful, durable and multipurpose.


Cuisinart CSB-77 Smart Stick Hand Blender with Whisk and Chopper Attachments
Years ago I had one of these bad boys and it was sadly lost during a move. I just didn’t have the heart to replace it, but time heals all wounds and I’m realizing now that the Smart Stick is perfect for the kitchenspace-challenged. I have virtually no counter space. I actually had to ditch my old countertop food processor when I moved to my apartment because there was nowhere to put it and I have been hurting ever since. I think this is perfect for anyone with limited storage space.


Wilton Whoopie Pie Pan
Talk about gratuitous. A few months ago, I mentioned to Chris that I was going to make whoopie pies and he looked alarmed and asked, “What?!” I have never even heard of a whoopie pie pan until I found it while rummaging around on Amazon. It seems kind of pointless, but when I really think about it I can see the potential. Not only will this pan make delightful little cakes that you can then sandwich with any kind of cream imaginable, but it would also work nicely for quickly baking batches of blini or making tart shells. Which is why I immediately wanted one as soon as I saw it.


Onion Goggles
I would never buy these for myself but I think they’re awesome. I realized, especially during the Thanksgiving weekend, that it would really be great if I could chop a large amount of onions without enduring torturous eye stinging.


Japanese Sometsuke Bowl Set
I have a weak spot for bowls. I don’t really care much about plates, but I like a nice bowl. Probably because there are so many things you can’t eat on a plate but there’s almost nothing you can’t eat in a bowl. Right? And Japan has a long tradition of beautiful bowls.


Himalayan Salt Block
While I’m sitting here thinking of wildly original foodie gift ideas I might as well throw this one out there. I would recommend pairing your giant block of salt Mark Bitterman’s excellent book “Salted.” Himalayan salt is incredibly beautiful and while you can actually cook on the salt block, it also makes a lovely serving tray.


Mussini 14 Year Balsamic Vinegar, Riserva di Famiglia, 3.38-Ounce Glass Bottle
I know Chris loves me, but I don’t think he loves me enough to spend $35 on a bottle of balsamic vinegar. A girl can dream…

p.s. All photos are taken from Amazon.com. I did not take the photos, I do not own the photos and I have provided links to their appropriate pages. While I love using Amazon for general shopping, I am not a paid endorser for Amazon.