A Busy Saturday (Part 1): The Apple of My Eye

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post — life has been a bit hectic lately, and with my first eight-week apprenticeship technical training period starting just a month from now, the craziness is just beginning.

This past Saturday is an example of that. While I was working my day job at Co-op followed by noodle slinging for hungry patrons at Eats of Asia’s stall at that same evening’s Hawkers Market, my handmade pastries were on sale at the Calgary Farmers’ Market. I’ll have more on my night at Hawkers’ Market shortly, but first…the bake sale.

This was the first time I was invited to bake up goodies for the annual Calgary Food Bloggers’ Bake Sale. The sale was started four years ago by local nutritionist and food lover Vincci Tsui, and has grown ever since. While I am only able to see what goodies other bloggers, chefs and other food celebrities created via the power of social media (one of those darned downsides of working!), I can tell you about my own.

I’ll have to admit, I am not the greatest baker in the world — but I do know one thing, and that’s how to bring an Asian twist to classic dishes. Apple desserts, for one, are one of my favourites to bring such twists given the spices that are already being used for them.

Your standard apple pie usually uses cinnamon, but recently I’ve discovered that Chinese-style five spice powder works just as well (if not better) than just cinnamon. The combination of Chinese cinnamon (a.k.a cassia), cloves, fennel, star anise and Szechwan pepper, along with a touch of ginger, adds a new dimension of flavour. Add a little Canadian touch with a bit of maple to go with it all, and I think I’ve got myself a winner.

But of course, I know most of you don’t exactly have five spice powder kicking around in your kitchens — so I thought, maybe there was a way to mimic it. Without access to Szechwan peppercorns, fennel seeds and star anise, I created my own blend of Saigon cinnamon (which has an aroma that I’ve found both Ceylon or Chinese cinnamons don’t have — hence the priciness of it), grated orange zest, nutmeg, cloves. and black pepper. The mix may look a bit more like a citrus rub one would use on meats, but of course that’s a story for another day.

As for slicing the apples, a good knife usually does the trick. But one key to remember, especially if you are looking to create slices instead of cubes, is that slices must be as even as possible for an even cook. And for decorative purposes, a thinner slice (usually under 1/8″) will allow for more flexibility for shaping into, say roses, inside the pastry. This guide will give you a better idea, but if you are truly not confident, a mandoline set to a very thin slice will also do.

You may notice that I didn’t put a traditional egg wash in the recipe, nor did I use milk in the dough. Since I was making it for a crowd, I wanted to have as many people enjoy the pastry. While I did use butter for the crust, most other solid fats can be used if you are sensitive to dairy.

As for the end result, I’d have to say that they ended up looking pretty good. I certainly hope for those of you who picked one up, you enjoyed it because I certainly enjoyed making them for you! Plus you can feel good about that pastry (or any other goodies you picked up at the sale) — all proceeds goes to Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids.

So that was just one part of my busy Saturday last week. Stay tuned, as next we look at Hawkers’ Market!


Asian-Spiced Apple Mini Tarts with Maple-Ginger Glaze
Makes 10-15 tarts or 8-10 galettes

Filling Ingredients:
– 2 large firm, tart apples, such as Granny Smith
– 1/2 lemon
– 1 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon, ground
– 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
– 1/2 tsp ground cloves
– 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
– 1/2 tsp grated orange zest
– 2 tablespoons turbinado (golden) sugar

Pastry Ingredients:
– 8 ounces all-purpose flour
– 4 ounces butter, ice cold
– 3 ounces sugar
– Pinch salt
– Ice cold water as needed

Glaze Ingredients:
– 1 cup maple syrup
– 1/4 cup water
– 6 pieces candied ginger, chopped fine

1. Start by creating the filling. Slice off the “cheeks” off the apples and slice thinly, using a knife or a mandoline. Season apples with a squeeze of lemon juice, add in spices and sugar, and and let sit.
2. Create pastry. Mix sugar, salt and flour together in a bowl. Cut butter into small cubes, and crumble into the dry ingredients until small gravel consistency. Add ice water to pastry gradually until dough forms. Chill until ready to use.
3. Bring water and maple syrup to a boil, add in candied ginger. Reduce by 1/4 and then remove from heat to let cool.
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry to approximately 1/8″ thick. For galettes, cut out 5″ circles, for tarts, cut out 2-3″ circles.
5. Lay out apple slices on centre of each galette or tart pastry placed into tins, drizzle any extra juices onto each tart.
6. Bake at 350°F for 25-30 minutes until apples are cooked and the pastry is golden.
7. Remove from oven, and glaze tarts. Serve warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, or let cool and wrap for sale.


Fun with Brining, Part II: The Pork Strikes Back

Last week for Thanksgiving, I brined meat for cooking for the first time, brining a chicken with a strong brine stuffed with Thai spices accompanied with a green curry gravy that had my parents wanting even more, and me wanting to experiment even further with brining meats.

So the very next day, as I took the day “off” (a chef’s brain is never off, hence the quotation marks…just ask any of my friends and bosses), my mom came back from grocery shopping with a whole rack of pork. I had no clue what spurred her to purchase such a large hunk of meat, but I knew immediately who would end up having to cook it.

Yep, that’s right…yours truly.

Ready for the cook...

Ready for the cook…

So that got me thinking. How would one go about seasoning and cooking such a thing to perfection in a short amount of time? The grill was one answer, but I had ran the grill out of propane during my YYC Pizza Week adventure and no one bothered to have it refilled. So a quick direct heat method was out of the running, leaving me with the oven as the only option.

With the cooking method settled (albeit by default), I then thought of ways to season the pork. While a nice olive oil rub of rosemary, garlic and thyme would have been nice, I had some lemongrass left over and more Asian herbs and spices in our cabinet that you could shake a stick at, and plus lemongrass pork is a favourite in our house, I got to work devising a way to season the pork rack with Vietnamese flavours.

No, Mr Pig, I expect you to cook to a perfect tenderness!

No, Mr Pig, I expect you to cook to a perfect tenderness!

Once again pulling up Michael Ruhlman’s quick brine, I once again added to the standard salt and water some fish sauce, soy sauce, lemongrass, shallots, chilis, black peppercorns and Kaffir lime leaves. I sliced up an orange to give it a bit of brigtness, and replaced some salt with sugar to balance out the flavours. Sliced the rack in half (so that I could submerge the rack completely in the biggest pot I could find in the house.)

I also scored the meat a little, and then let it soak for about two and a half hours to let the brine do its magic. Once the rack was dried off, I put it into the oven to let it start cooking.

But if you have ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant and ordered the Vietnamese pork chop on rice, you know it is usually got a nice char on the outside, while still remaining juicy on the inside. And without a direct flame, the char can be difficult to obtain (unless you char the rest of the meat, of course), so what is a cook to do?

Enter the nuoc mau.

Yes, the veritable Vietnamese caramel sauce, made of fish sauce and sugar. I had made a small batch (infused with lemongrass) for a batch of stir fried Brussels sprouts and tomatoes that I didn’t finish using, so I took a bit, added just a little bit of water to thin it out, brushed it onto the pork and let it crisp with a 145°F interior.* The result was a sweet, slightly crunchy contrast to the juicy, soft flesh inside. It was almost like Chinese style char siu (BBQ pork), but in a way it’s even better!

A taste of fall. Oh yes!

A taste of fall. Oh yes!

Thanks to these last two experiments, I’m now totally convinced on the merits of brining. It might take an extra day or maybe a little bit more effort, but it is truly worth it if you are a fan of moist, juicy meat — something I’m sure most of us are!

(* – I understand if some people are a little leery at that number, and when you’ve brined your meat chances are it will survive to the 160°F recommended by the federal government, and still remain perfect. But as long as your meat has been safely handled, it shouldn’t be a problem as long as it is cooked to a satin white on the inside, flecked with a little pink.)

Vietnamese Style Roasted Pork Rack
(Serves 4)

1 8-bone pork rib roast
500ml water
600g ice cubes
1/3 cup fish sauce
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 + 1/3 cup salt
1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped
1 orange or lime, quartered
10 Kaffir lime leaves
1 chili, chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 5mm piece ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon Vietnamese caramel sauce

1. Remove pork rib roast from package, rinse off and score in a diamond pattern on the fat. Set aside for later.
2. In a saucepan, combine all the remaining ingredients except for the ice cubes and the Vietnamese caramel. Bring to a boil.
3. Remove brine from heat, and let steep for 10-20 minutes.
4. Add in ice cubes, and allow it to melt.
5. Put pork rib into a large clear bag, and pour in cooled brine. Seal, and let sit for anywhere between 3 to 8 hours (the brine is too strong to keep overnight.)
6. Preheat oven to 425°F.
7. Remove roast from brine, and pat dry. Cover with salt and pepper, and place on roasting tray.
8. Place roast on a rack that is in the lower third of the oven, and let cook for approximately 20 minutes.
9. After 20 minutes, turn heat down to 390°F. Cook for another 25-30 minutes.
10. Using a meat thermometre, check for pork doneness. If it is sitting at 125°F (or 145°F), brush on the Vietnamese caramel sauce.
11. Turn heat back to 425°F, and continue cooking the roast for another 15-20 minutes, until the internal temperature hits 140°F or 160°F, and the outside is golden brown and delicious (GBD).
12. Let roast rest for up to 20 minutes, covered with tin foil. Don’t carve it immediately! Trust me on this one.
13. After resting, carve and dig in! Drizzle with more Vietnamese caramel sauce, and Serve with seasonal vegetables and a hearty mash, or rice.

Vietnamese Caramel Sauce (Nuoc Mau)
(Makes about 1 cup)

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/2 stalk lemongrass, bashed

1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan, and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat, and let reduce to about half in volume. It should be the consistency and the colour of maple syrup.
3. Let cool, and put that shit on anything.

Thai’d Thanksgiving and Other Holiday Culinary Hijinx

When I’m at home, I am lucky enough that someone else makes dinner. But when major “western” holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas roll around, the onus falls on me to make the celebratory meal (I haven’t made the Chinese New Year meals yet…that I think is coming soon.) And each year I’ve gotten a little better, incorporating every new technique that I’ve learned over the past year. And for the most part, they’ve all turned out okay. But this year, having been exposed to so many new techniques, I think I outdid myself.

Most years (especially when my grandmother was still around), on Thanksgiving we would sit down to a big turkey. But ever since Poh-Poh left us, we’ve taken to having a roasted chicken instead. Sure, we don’t get the luxury of turning the bones into delicious turkey congee, but on the other hand we don’t have tons of leftovers that would take us days and weeks to get through. So in a way, it’s a win-win.

As for chicken, it has always been one of my favourite meats (my unfortunate encounter with it on a certain show notwithstanding), and when I’ve roasted chicken, I’ve always been partial to Ina Garten’s technique of stuffing citrus, onion and garlic into the cavity to perfume and keep moist the meat. But with all the rage about brining, I decided to give it a try. The problem is, I’ve never brined it before. And since my mom asked me on Sunday night what we were having for Thanksgiving Monday, I needed an answer…and fast!

The brine working its magic on Mr Chicken!

The brine working its magic on Mr Chicken!

And through the magic powers of Google, an answer came in the form of Michael Ruhlman’s quick brine. Since I needed a chicken in the oven, cooked and served in a reasonable amount of time (there have been years where the bird was not served until 8:30pm or 9pm, which is rather inconvenient to say the least.) — a quick brine was the only answer.

A standard brine, according to Ruhlman, is 5% (or 50 grams of salt per 1 litre of water). But to get it done quick, a 10% brine would do just fine. While the brine was great, I had to put an Asian spin on it. And what better way to Asian up roast chicken than to make it Thai? So instead of what Ruhlman added (lemon and sage), I placed limes, shallots, cilantro, Kaffir lime leaves and other Thai-style herbs and spices into the brine. And to give a nod back to Ina Garten, I placed the lime wedges into the chicken cavity for the extra perfume.

The result? A perfectly tender, juicy and moist chicken that was aromatic and flavourful. But no festival roast is complete without some sort of gravy, right?

The finished product, ready for carving!

The finished product, ready for carving!

Enter in the green curry gravy. Just like your ordinary gravy, except made with coconut milk steeped with Thai spices to give it a brand new aroma. Drizzled on top of the moist chicken, it was incredible…so incredible, that my dad (usually not a gravy kind of guy) had the gravy with the chicken. I think that means I did well, right?

As for side dishes, I went with a traditional buttermilk mashed potato and roasted peppers (a family favourite), and paired it with two new items, a spiced butternut squash and stir-fried Brussels sprouts with tomato and lap cheong (Chinese sausage). All in all, it was definitely a meal for the books, once again raising the bar higher. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have to find a way to top myself for Christmas.

Maybe a nice prime rib? Hmmm…

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thai Style Roasted Chicken
1 3-4 lb chicken, whole
515ml water
1/3 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup salt
1 tablespoon sugar
600 g ice cubes
1 lime, quartered into wedges
1/2 onion, peeled and quartered
1 shallot, peeled and halved
1 stalk lemongrass, roughly chopped
2 dried chilis, cut
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed
3 Kaffir lime leaves
1 5mm piece of ginger, smashed
4 cloves garlic, smashed
A handful of cilantro, roughly chopped

1. In a pot, mix water, salt, sugar and fish sauce. Add in lime, lemongrass, cjilis, peppercorns, lime leaves, ginger and cilantro, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and let steep for 10 minutes.
2. Add in ice cubes and stir until most ice cubes are melted.
3. In a large bag, place in chicken. Pour in brine. Seal.
4. Shake bag, and let sit for anywhere between 3-7 hours.
5. Remove chicken from bag and discard the brine. Pat dry chicken completely (yes, even the insides). Place the wedges of lime into the cavity, and truss (if not done already…)
6. Let chicken dry for about 1 hour.
7. Preheat oven to 450°F, and cover chicken skin with salt and pepper.
8. Cook chicken in the oven for approximately 20 minutes to crisp up skin, and then reduce heat to 350°F. Cook 20 minutes every pound of chicken. (i.e. 3.5lbs = 70 minutes.)
9. Using a meat thermometre, test chicken for doneness. You’re looking for 185°F or more. If it hits, take it out and rest 5-10 minutes.
10. If desired, place chicken on low broil for 5-7 minutes really crisp up the skin.

Green Curry Gravy
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon roast chicken drippings
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups coconut milk
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon green curry paste
1 tablespoon chicken stock powder
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped fine
1 tablespoon lemongrass, chopped fine
1 tablespoon ginger, chopped rough
1 dried chili, chopped

1. In a pot, mix milk, coconut milk, chicken stock powder and fish sauce. Bring to a simmer, and add in green curry paste, cilantro, lemongrass, chili and ginger. Let slowly steep on low heat.
2. Melt butter on medium heat, add in roast drippings. Add in flour to create roux and whisk. Let cook for about 5 minutes to create a blonde roux.
3. Strain milk mixture of herbs and spices, and gently pour into roux to incorporate. Whisk until a smooth sauce forms, and keep warm to serve with the chicken.

YYC Pizza Week Blogger Challenge: A Taste of Britain and Canada

imageYesterday marked the beginning of YYC Pizza Week, a week-long celebration of all things pizza here in Calgary. Over 40 restaurants are busy churning out pizzas that range from the ordinary to rice-crust, from duck on onion pancake crusts to Montreal smoked meat on a potato latke crust, pie connoisseurs will be in heaven, with a portion of sales donated to Meals on Wheels, a local charity that provides meals to those with limited mobility, and others.

But while the restaurants are locked in fierce combat, we bloggers and food writers aren’t going to be left out of the fun. As part of the festivities, me and 8 others writers have been challenged to create our own pizzas, with the caveat that we must use at least one of the following three ingredients:

– Fire-Roasted Tomatoes (Boring!);
– Anchovies (Fuck Meh! If I wanted to make Stinky Tofu Pizza maybe…wait a tick…), and;
– Sweet Chestnut Purée.

In the end, I decided to go with the last one with the intention of making a dessert pizza. But immediately I was hit with the stark realization that I’ve never had the stuff before. And then, my brain went into total panic mode.

No, I told myself firmly, I have made my bed, so I was going to lie in it.

A little research and a bit of tasting later, and it seemed like maybe, just maybe, there could be an Asian twist to this? Chestnuts were sold freshly roasted on the street corners near where I grew up as a snack but what else could I pair it with? And then, it hit me. If I was going to do a dessert, why not base it on a cheese plate? I had one the last time I was at Winebar Kensington, so why the hell not?

So then the task began. What cheese? And what else would go well with that cheese. I had immensely enjoyed a Blue cheese once when I was flying home to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific’s Business Class. It was a Cambizola from what I remembered (it was almost six years ago, which for my ADHD addled brain is an eternity), but nevertheless, I knew blue cheese would be a massive piece of my puzzle.

So then, what went with blue cheese? Apparently pears do. That’s it! Pear, blue cheese, and…wait, now I needed something crunchy. Walnuts? Sweetened walnuts? With maple? Well now. Maybe I was on to something! Sure, it wasn’t Asian, but I can say it’s inspired by something Asian, right? And to cut down on the sweetness, a touch of salt for the maple walnuts. (I originally wanted to make brittle, but my candy making skills is another thing entirely…)

More research on crust and a shopping trip after work at Calgary Co-op later, I had my ingredients. After a bit of work later, my pear, Stilton and maple walnut pizza was born. As for the name? Stilton is British, and the maple walnut is Canadian. A little taste of Britain, with a few flashes of Asian inspiration, coupled with a little taste of Canada. For a transplanted Hong Konger, it’s rather apropos, isn’t it not?

Pizza on the grill. Yes, you can!

Pizza on the grill. Yes, you can!

Since I designed this pie to be a dessert, I made it 6-inches, with a thin crust. You can serve it in wedges or squares, as a hors d’oeuvre, or even as a vegetarian meal. I also cooked it in the grill (since the weather was still so nice outside!), which gave it a nice crisp texture for the crust. And if are not a fan of blue cheese, you can substitute it with cheddar. But if my dad (who does not like cheese) said, “hey, this isn’t bad.” — well, you get the idea! The recipe is below, so feel free to adapt and change as you like. As a wise man said, “the recipe is only the starting point. The flavour lies within your heart.”

(Oh, and did I mention that it’s vegetarian friendly? As a meatatarian, I’m kinda proud that the tofu-loving side of me can come out and play!)

Oh, and before I forget, there is a vote on which of the nine of us has the best pizza, so drop me a lifeline here and support my bid for ultimate YYC Pizza Week blogger pizza supremacy! (Insert Bela Lugosi-esque evil laughter here…)


UPDATE: It seems SOMEONE (no names) has also entered a pear pizza as well…and as we all know, mine is definitely better, so…please vote for me! Not for that other pizza!)

Pie's ready!

Pie’s ready!


Crust Ingredients (makes 4x 6″ pies):
– 3 cups flour
– 1 2/3 cup water
– 1 satchel instant yeast
– 1 tsp sugar
– 1 tbsp olive oil
– 1 tsp salt

Topping Ingredients (For 1 pizza):
– 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
– pinch salt
– 1/4 cup maple syrup
– 4 tablespoons chestnut purée
– 1 Bartlett pear, sliced thin
– 1/2 cup Stilton cheese, crumbled
– 1/2 cup Aged cheddar, grated (optional)

1. Combine yeast and sugar with lukewarm water, and let sit for a few minutes until it begins to bubble.
2. Add water to flour and salt, then the oil. Mix well until dough ball forms.
3. Knead dough until elastic, and set aside to rise for about 1.5 hours.
4. Slice pears thin, and toss with a little lemon juice to prevent browning.
5. Toast walnuts to a crunchy texture, and toss with salt and maple syrup, and set aside.
6. Once dough is risen cut apart and divide into 4 portions. Roll out each portion to approximately 6″ pies.
7. Brush on chestnut purée, and place pear slices on top. Crumble on cheese(s).
8. Preheat your BBQ grill to 500°F; once it’s close to that temperature turn off all burners except the two on the side, crank those bad boys to medium.
9. Cook pies with lid down for 10-12 minutes. until crust is brown.
10. Sprinkle walnuts on pies, and serve!