29 June 2012

snap peas with shrimp and almonds

I can blame my family upbringing for two things: my fondness for fine food and my inclination towards intoxication.

On countless Saturdays, my mom, brother, sister and I would be herded into the car by my father for an afternoon of bar-hopping. We made our way from one beer joint to another, as my father got progressively more drunk and we got progressively more bored of it all.

After too many hours and too many rounds of draughts, we'd inevitably end up at one of his preferred restaurants for a late night dinner. Usually that meant turtle soup and prime rib at Reeb’s, or “chink-chink-Chinaman” (my father’s term) at Jong Mea.

Jong Mea was a typical Cantonese-style restaurant that catered to an exclusively Western clientele. I loved everything about it – the dark, hazy room, lined with paintings of Chinese landscapes; the thick, oversized menu with unusual, strange-sounding dishes; the black-suited Chinese wait staff who spoke in broken, undecipherable English; the mysterious and exotic, satin-clad bartendress who my mother nicknamed “the Dragon Lady.”

Maybe I loved too much about Jong Mea. I can probably blame these visits during my formative youth for instilling in me a love for all things Asian, especially men. To be sure, my first childhood crush was on a waiter named Sam Chin. I adored him – his dark, narrow eyes, his shiny, course black hair, his toothy grin and mischievous laugh. I dreamed of taking him home and making him my secret best friend, holding him close to me and caressing his soft, smooth skin.

Jong Mea was famous for War Su Gai, deep-fried chicken breasts that were coated with a flavorful gravy and garnished with almonds. To this day, nothing’s ever been as good as their take on the Cantonese classic, Shrimp in Lobster Sauce. Another favorite was Shrimp Subgum Chow Mein, again with almonds.

One thing that all of Jong Mea's dishes had in common was their use of the same, basic sauce. It's incredibly simple, and easily adaptable to whatever you have on hand for a stir fry.

Snap peas (or pea pods)
Peanut oil
Chopped garlic
Almonds (I used Blue Diamond Smokehouse wasabi soy flavored almonds... mmmm...)

Basic Chinese white sauce:
2 Tbl. soy sauce
3/4 c. chicken stock
1 Tbl. grated ginger
1/2 tsp. chopped garlic (1 small clove)
1 Tbl. cornstarch

First, stir fry shrimp (or meat or tofu). Remove it from the pan. Next, stir fry your vegetables.

Pre-mix all the sauce ingredients.

Stir fry shrimp and garlic in peanut oil until shrimp are just opaque. Add snap peas and stir fry a minute until coated with oil. Remove a few of the hot veggies and put into the white sauce mixture to heat it.

Add the white sauce into the pan with the shrimp and pea pods. Bring to the point that it just starts to boil, then back down on the heat. Simmer for a minute or two until the sauce is clear and thickened.

Serve with almonds, chopped green onions, cilantro, or sesame seeds, or...

18 June 2012

strawberry basil gelato

Although the official start of summer isn’t until June 20th, most of North America considers the season to begin with the May long weekend: Memorial Day in the U.S. or Victoria Day in Canada.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the unofficial summer thus far has been cold and wet. Disgruntled Vancouverites have dubbed it “Junuary.”

It’s too early to declare 2012’s June as the coldest on record here, but so far it’s not very encouraging. You have to go all the way back to 1971 to find a Junuary that even comes close to being as chilly as it’s been this year. The month so far has averaged just 55° F (13° C). Vancouver has had only 68 hours of bright sunshine this month. An average June experiences 229 hours of sunshine.

Despite the miserable weather, one sure sign of summer has emerged. Locally grown strawberries made their debut this weekend. And what a grand entrance it is!

Amazingly, this year’s crop is the best I’ve tasted in the 5 years I’ve lived here. At first bite, you discover a strawberry that has all the complexity of a sip of fine wine. It overwhelms with layers of flavor, from striking sweetness to a tinge of tang. A juicy burst—sweet at first, lingering on the tongue—then a subtle hit of tanginess, savoury and satisfying.

To celebrate this welcome harbinger of sunny days ahead, I made strawberry basil gelato. My version might not be classified as a true gelato, since I intentionally kept some small strawberry chunks in the mix rather than making if totally smooth and creamy. In combination with homegrown Italian basil, it becomes an absolute delight for the senses.

1 pound fresh strawberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
2-3 tbsp fresh chopped basil; 1-2 tsp dried basil

Remove the green tops of the strawberries and rinse them in cold water. Place the berries and the sugar in a food processor and blend until puréed. Add the milk and lemon juice and continue blending until all the ingredients are mixed together thoroughly.

Whip the cream with a whisk until it begins to thicken and acquires the consistency of buttermilk. Add the puréed strawberries and basil; mix thoroughly. Pour the mixture into an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's directions.