Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chow Mein

“No one wants to eat Chinese food on the Fourth of July, I say.  We’re in apple-pie America and my parents are cooking chow mein!” -Janet Wong, Apple Pie 4th of July

I ran into this cute little children’s picture book while I was browsing for blog ideas online, called Apple Pie 4th of July.  It’s about a girl whose parents are Chinese immigrants.  They own a little store in America, and on the 4th of July they cook chow mein and egg rolls to sell to their customers.  The girl is afraid that her parents aren’t trying to fit in with American culture, insisting that Americans like to eat apple pie on Independence Day.  It’s a cute little story and it brings up a whole different idea of patriotism.

I was thinking about American culture, and how, even though I love apple pie, I love chow mein a whole lot more.  My favorite types of food are 1) Italian, 2) Chinese, and 3) Mexican.  My ancestry doesn’t come from any one of these cultures, but I’m glad other people share them with people like me (even if they are very Americanized versions).  America has always been a melting pot of many different cultures, which I personally think makes it awesome.  We get to learn about each others’ origins and try a lot of delicious food, like chow mein.

I’ve always wanted to make homemade chow mein.  I waited because for some reason I was under the impression that you had to buy special Chinese noodles.  False!  I discovered that you can substitute those fancy Chinese noodles for a more common noodle of the orient: ramen.

I looked at a bunch of online lo/chow mein recipes with ramen and then created my own recipe based on what vegetables and spices I had stocked in my kitchen.  It’s just one of those dishes that you can vary based on your taste preferences and supplies, and it’s very easy to make.  So keep in mind that the ingredients I use don’t have to perfectly match the ingredients in your pantry.  Work with what you’ve got!

Chow Mein
Servings: 2
Cook time: about 30 min.

Cooking spray
1 chicken breast
½ medium onion, chopped
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Chaka’s Mmm Sauce (or similar sauce, although Chaka's is amazing!)
1 tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp chili powder
¼ tsp ground ginger
2 cloves fresh garlic
1 tsp sesame seeds
1 cup uncooked spinach, rinsed
¼ cup frozen peas
1 cup water
1 package Top Ramen (flavor doesn’t matter.  You’re not going to use the packet)
1 ½ tbsp vegetable or sesame oil

  1. Spray a non-stick medium frying pan with cooking spray. Chop chicken breast into small bite-sized pieces (1 inch cubes or smaller) and add to frying pan.  Also stir in chopped onion, soy sauce, Chaka’s Mmm Sauce, garlic powder, chili powder, and ginger.  Cover and fry on medium-low, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is completely cooked.  Don’t over cook, or the chicken won’t be as tender. 

  1. Using a garlic press, press in 1 clove of fresh garlic, as well as the sesame seeds. Stir in, cooking until garlic is fragrant (15-30 seconds).  Pour the water into the pan, then spread the spinach and peas on top of the chicken mixture.  Cover and cook until spinach is tender (about 3 minutes). 

  1. Break ramen into four pieces while it is still in the package.  Open package, discard flavor packet, and lay ramen noodles on top of the spinach and peas.  Cover and cook for 1-2 minutes, until the noodles are tender enough to stir.  Uncover and continue cooking until the water is cooked out, stirring regularly.  Stir in the oil and press in the rest of the garlic.  Fry the noodles for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until the noodles start to brown.  Remove from heat and serve.
Size of my chicken pieces.  Also how to hold chopsticks.

The nice thing about this recipe is that it’s all in one pan.  Minimal dishes!

Variation ideas:
Sweet: add a tbsp of teriyaki sauce and/or 1-2 tbsp sugar with the soy sauce and onions.
Spicy: use at least 1 tsp of chili powder, replace vegetable oil with chili oil, and/or add lots more fresh garlic.  You can also use fresh ginger, chilies, and peppers.
Vegetable variations: bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, mushrooms, cabbage, carrots, green onions, broccoli, bell peppers, etc.
Tender chicken: Marinate chicken with the sauces and spices + tsp of rice vinegar for at least 15 minutes before cooking.
Low sodium: reduce soy sauce to 1 tbsp and then add 2 tbsp water
Low fat: Don’t use any oil at all.  Remove from heat after adding the rest of the garlic. Unfortunately the noodles have an unavoidable 14 grams of fat in each package.  

Other recipes online:

By the way, have you ever wanted to know the difference between lo mein and chow mein?  You can read about it here.  Apparently chow mein is fried longer, making the noodles a little crispier than lo mein.

 P.S. Over 2,000 hits!  Yay!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Elena Ruz

It’s been a little while.  I’ve been busy with Christmas celebrations, hanging out with friends, and going on trips up to the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains (in California, not Spain).  But now it’s a new year, and I have renewed determination to keep this blog up. 

Today I have a very simple, cheap recipe.  My eight year old niece could easily do it.  But it is a pretty unique food for us Americans.  I came across it as I was writing my children’s novel, The Genie Maker, in November.  It is called an Elena Ruz, named after a 1930s Cuban debutante who would go to a late-night restaurant and order this peculiar meal.  Since I discovered the dish via my story, I figured I’d let my novel introduce it. This is the first anyone has ever seen of my novel, so feel honored! Just please keep in mind that it is still a rough scene, and definitely not the most exciting part of the story.

Background: Bryce (the main character) is the new kid at a Colorado middle school and Felix (a boy who emigrated from Cuba a few years previously) is kind enough to sit next to him at lunch.

“What’s that?” Bryce asked, pointing to Felix’s sandwich.
Felix laughed.  “That’s an Elena Ruz,” he said, picking it up.
“A what?”
“Elena Ruz.  It’s a sandwich they make a lot in Havana.  It’s homemade bread with cream cheese, strawberry jam, and turkey.”
Bryce wrinkled his nose.  “Strawberry jam and turkey?”
“Yeah, it sounds weird, but it’s really good.  You want to try it?”  Felix opened the plastic bag and tore off a small piece for Bryce to try.  “My mom thinks I’m going to forget my Cuban roots if I live here too long, so she is always trying to make me take Cuba with me to school.”
Bryce took the little piece of sandwich gingerly.  It looked pretty weird.  But it was only a small piece, and he felt like his chance at a friend would vanish if he didn’t try it, so Bryce decided to go for it.  He had his small carton of chocolate milk if it was too disgusting.
He popped the little piece of sandwich into his mouth and started chewing.  At first all he could taste was the bread, which had rather hard crust but tasted about the same as French bread.  The mixture of sweet jam and cream cheese was good, which Bryce expected since he and Ellie often had that on their toast in the morning.  Surprisingly, though, the turkey blended in well, and he found himself wishing that Felix had given him more than just a small bite.
“You like it?” Felix said, watching Bryce’s face carefully.
Bryce nodded and swallowed.  “Wow.  That was actually really good.  Way better than my lunch.”
They both looked down at Bryce’s chalky mashed potatoes and small brown lump that must have been what the cafeteria menu described as Salisbury steak. They both looked up again with wrinkled noses. 
“I’ll tell you what,” said Felix.  “You give me that chocolate milk, and I’ll let you have the rest of my sandwich.”
Bryce glanced at his chocolate milk, his prized lunch accessory, and then back at Felix’s sandwich.  His mouth immediately started to water.  “Deal,” he said.

The sandwich doesn’t really need a recipe, but here it is:

Elena Ruz (Cuban Turkey Sandwich)
2 slices French bread
Strawberry jam
Cream cheese

Spread the cream cheese and jam on the bread, put turkey on top, put sandwich together and enjoy!

I mixed up a little chocolate milk to go with it, just to top it off nicely.

You can make traditional Cuban bread (pan cubano) instead of French bread, if you want it to be completely authentic.  I didn’t think the hours of work were worth the effort for a sandwich, so I didn’t bother.  You can find a pan cubano recipe here.

I used packaged turkey sandwich meat, and it was good, but I think it would be even better with leftover turkey slices from Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Keep this sandwich in mind the next time you have more turkey leftovers than you know what to do with.

By the way, I wrote Bryce’s description of the sandwich flavors long before I tried it.  But I think Bryce (or me, rather), got it perfectly right.  The Elena Ruz is an easy and surprisingly yummy sandwich.  I definitely recommend that you try it.