Barbecue Pulled Chicken Mantou Sandwiches

Almost all of my friends use Netflix and a decent percentage find its selection of streaming movies less than exciting. I enthusiastically disagree. I think the assortment of social, cultural, historic and nature documentaries is really appealing. Maybe it is because of the fact that I have already seen the feature films by the time they’re streaming that my instant queue is full of documentaries. Regardless, I – and I can’t be the only one – think it’s much more interesting to watch PBS’ Story of India documentary (yes, all 6 parts) than the latest Fast & Furious installment.

I recommend Wild China, a 6 part nature documentary series on the natural history of China. It was filmed all in high-def so it is incredibly visually striking. A lot of the program was filmed in the most remote parts of China and use special filming techniques to capture amazing animal behavior. The program highlights the rich biodiversity of China and also the relationship between animals and the ecosystem. This is true of humans and our food as well.

Mantou, Chinese steamed bread, is a staple in my repertoire. It’s decidedly a northern Chinese dish. Southern China is mountainous, rainy, warm and hilly, suitable for rice terraces. The north has a flatter topography and is suited for the cultivation of wheat and corn. Oftentimes I use mantou and regular bread interchangeably. Mantou, since steamed, is very soft, pillowy and absorbent (mmm…juices). I also find it much lighter than baked breads; so I can eat more of it!

And since summer has practically started already in New York, I’m combining the best of both worlds with mantou and pulled chicken. I also added in Pickled Cucumbers and Radishes to provide a bit of flavorful tang and textural contrast to the soft bread and meat.

Directions

-For the Steamed Rolls-

  1. Dissolve the sugar into the warm water. Add yeast.
  2. Let stand about 10 minutes, so that the yeast will froth.
  3. Mix together flour and salt.
  4. If using a bread machine (like I did), mix all ingredients together and set on dough cycle.
  5. If making it by hand, mix ingredients together and knead until a soft dough forms. Shape into a ball, place in a large bowl and cover lightly with a lid. Let rise in a warm area for 1 to 1.5 hours.
  6. After it has risen, knead a few times and shape dough into a long rectangular log. With a knife, cut 16 pieces.
  7. Places the pieces into steamer baskets. Cover and let rise again in a warm area for about 45 minutes.
  8. Steam mantou in the baskets for about 12 minutes.

-For the Pulled Chicken-

  1. In a skillet, heat canola oil and brown chicken on all sides. Transfer to slow cooker insert.
  2. Then in the skillet, saute onion slices until softened, about 4 minutes. Add to slow cooker insert.
  3. Pour the barbecue sauce over the chicken and onion in the slow cooker.
  4. Cover and cook on low for 7 hours.

-For the Assembly-

  1. Break open a mantou bun, add cucumbers and radishes.
  2. Layer in the shredded chicken and top with cilantro.

Cook’s Notes

If your kitchen isn’t warm enough for the dough to properly rise, preheat your oven to 350F for 30 seconds. Let the dough rise in the warmed oven.

I find that the stainless-steel 3-tiered steamers work much better than the bamboo version that’s place over a wok. The latter kind is used mainly for dim sum plates while the 3-tiered kind can be used for steamed breads, corn, fish, etc. This steamer is an example of the kind I have. They can be found on Amazon or at any housewares shop in Chinatown. New Kam Man is a great supermarket on Canal St. where I buy my Asian sauces, noodles and kitchenware, including plates, steamers and utensils. They also have a great Asian snack section!

Bone-in and skin-on chicken thighs (breasts, drumsticks, etc.) are usually cheaper than the prepared boneless, skinless version. To save money, buy the bone-in, skin-on kind and prep it yourself. The skin is usually pretty much almost separated and easy to remove. And if you’re slow cooking, the meat will fall off the bones anyway when done, so the bones won’t be an issue.

Homemade Flaky Pie Crust

I’ve never been fully satisfied with store-bought pie crust. They are convenient and get the job done. Some are actually quite good. Though none of them have buttery richness flavor that you get only through real, homemade crusts. Yes, butter – and usually a whole stick of it! I try not to make too much dessert, since it is just the two of us eating it. But when I do, there is no substitute for butter.

I’ve always thought homemade crusts were difficult to make, especially since I don’t have the space for a full-sized food processor or stand mixer. But I tried it one day and it was quite simple (and fast!) to make! This recipe can be used for any types of pie or galette (but not tarts – their crusts are slightly different).

Directions

-By Hand Method-

  1. Stir together flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl.
  2. Using a pastry cutter (or 2 knives), cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal and the butter pieces are no larger than small peas.
  3. Add the ice water and mix with a fork until the dough pulls together. If the dough is dry, mix in more water 1 tablespoon at a time.

-By Stand Mixer or Food Processor Method-

  1. Combine the flour, sugar and salt.
  2. Mix or pulse the ingredients together.
  3. Add in the butter and mix or pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse meals and the butter pieces are no larger than small peas.
  4. Add the ice water and mix until the dough pulls together. If the dough is dry, mix in more water 1 tablespoon at a time.

-To Shape the Crust-

  1. To shape the crust, transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and flatten into a disk.
  2. Lightly flour the dough and roll with a rolling pin until it becomes at least a 12″ round, so there is enough dough to cover up the sides of the pie dish.
  3. Transfer the round into the dish and press into bottoms and sides.
  4. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Cook’s Notes

To get the coarse meal texture, you need to cut in very cold butter pieces. I find that as I’m cutting the stick of butter into small cubes, it starts to soften. In this case, I freeze the cubes a few minutes so they’ve hardened.

If you don’t have a pastry cutter, using 2 dinner knives in a “X” crossing motion also does the trick. If using knives, the smaller the butter pieces the easier. A trick to getting very small pieces of butter is to use a box grater. Freeze the stick of butter so it’s stiff and then grate the butter into shreds. If the shredded butter is softening, freeze it again before cutting into the flour. I’ve made crusts using knives and it works perfectly well.

For the ice water, I usually end up using about a total of 6 tablespoons.

Instead of shaping the dough directly on a work surface, I do it on top of parchment paper, which facilitates in transferring the  dough to the dish (see next tip). To roll the dough into a round, turn the dough (or your rolling pin) a quarter turn after a few rolls. I also lightly flour the dough after a few turns. As you’re working the dough, the heat causes the butter to melt, which makes the dough stick to the rolling pin. If the dough becomes too soft to work with, refrigerate it for a few minutes.

To easily transfer the crust to the dish, slide the rolling pin underneath the parchment paper. Transfer by flipping the crust onto the dish and pull off the parchment paper baking. After pressing the crust into the pan, remove the excess dough by roll the rolling pin over the edges of the dish.

How to Get Cooking

Since this blog was (recently) started, I’ve been asked a few times about how I come up with original recipes. So I thought I’d share some of my processes in recipe creation and tips that I’ve learned from the short while that I’ve been experimenting in the kitchen.

First of all, the actual process of cooking isn’t as a hard as it sounds – the stove is doing a lot of work. Take a roast chicken – sure on a platter with garnish, it looks elaborate. But really, you rub on some spices or let it sit in a marinade for a few hours, place it in a roasting pan and stick it in the oven for about 45 minutes. Done. The more difficult (but doable) part, which comes with practice and experimentation, is figuring out what flavors to infuse together in those marinades, broths, seasonings, etc. Here’s a rough guide to how I’ve done it:

  • When first starting out, follow the recipes exactly.

This way you’ll know how the flavors play with each other and into the dish. You’ll also discover your own taste profile, what aspects of the recipe you’d like to tweak, and what flavors you’d like to carry over to another dish. For example, if you liked the marinade for a chicken dish and wanted to use it with vegetables, the addition of cornstarch will thicken up the sauce, which can be used in a stir fry for sugar snap peas.

  • Read.

Read blogs, read cookbooks. I like to look at the same/similar recipe from a few different sources to understand how it can be changed and reinterpreted. Plus, it’s fun to look at the pictures. =) After looking at all sorts of recipes, you’ll start to see what combination of ingredients work. Use this knowledge as a base. Some of the sites I look at are Tastespotting, which links you to a lot a lot of blogs, Williams Sonoma, Gourmet, and Bon Appetit. Which sites inspire you?

  • Just experiment.

With savory cooking, recipes are mostly approximations. The 1/4 teaspoon can be changed to 1/2 teaspoon or even 1 teaspoon depending on your palate. Just be cognizant of the ingredients you are using/substituting/increasing/decreasing. For example, dried herbs are stronger in flavor than fresh herbs. So if the recipe calls for fresh herbs, to keep the same amount of flavor you’d generally want to use 1/2 to 1/3 of that amount if using dried herbs. For baking, you need to be more precise since, for example, the amount of sugar and eggs can change how fluffy your cakes are and baking powder can change how much muffins rise. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t experiment. With practice, you’ll start to see the ratios. Like for a dough, it’s 3 cups flour to 1 cup water (+ 1 optional tablespoon of olive oil). For fresh pasta, it’s 2 cups flour to 2 large eggs.

In some ways matching flavors is like color relationships. Colors next to one another match, so do colors on opposite sides of the wheel. Some colors also match with almost everything. I find that in cooking, similar flavors blend well together: apple+pear and blueberry+lemon. Contrasting flavors also work well together: prosciutto+melon, apple+fennel, and soft goat cheese+honey.

Cooking is also a feast for the eyes.

Play with color, make the food visually appealing. When making couscous or quinoa, add some peas for a pop of green. Add some fresh parsley to garlic mashed potatoes.

Also play with texture. When making a salad, instead of sliced cucumbers or carrots, shave these vegetables into strips/ribbons with a peeler.

But like I’ve said, just start somewhere. Mix a few things together and see how it turns out. Be sure to have a lot of friends to whom you can pawn off food. =)

Pan-Seared Turbot with Jasmine Rice and Fennel-Cardamom Broth

Ok, I promise – I definitely cook more than just seafood. I try to eat it a few days per week; so after this, you probably won’t see seafood for a week or so. Whew. But we need to get through this post first…

So another white-fleshed fish – filleted and cooked, they all look about the same. But this one is Turbot a.k.a. Greenland Halibut, which is a flatfish that is wild caught.  The meat is delicate in flavor and flaky. The fish yields good fillets that can be baked, poached or pan-seared. I wanted to keep the integrity of the fish but to also bring in flavor without heavy battering and seasoning. So I pan-seared the fish with salt and pepper and used broth to bring in indirect flavors. I actually had left-over fennel from the mussels dish and used it with mushroom, ground cardamom and star anise seed to infuse chicken stock.

Cardamom is very aromatic and a spice regularly used in Indian cuisine. It has a slightly gingery taste and is an ingredient in Masala chai for tea. Star anise is a spice that resembles anise (licorice-y)  in flavor and is an ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder. I’m using star anise to complement the licorice-y flavor of fennel. Lastly, the mushroom adds depth and meatiness to the broth.

Directions

  1. On the stove-top or in a rice cooker, cook the jasmine rice in the water. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan on medium heat, drizzle olive oil and heat. Add fennel and cook until beginning to soften, about 3-5 minutes.
  3. Add mushrooms and cook about 2 minutes.
  4. Add ground cardamom and star anise seed. Cook for about 30 seconds.
  5. Pour in chicken broth and bring to a boil.
  6. Reduce heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  7. In a large skillet on medium heat, drizzle olive oil and heat.
  8. Pat dry the Turbot fillets and season both sides with sea salt and black pepper.
  9. Pan-sear the fillets, turning only once. The fillets will cook and turn white from the bottom-up. Flip the fillets when it’s cooked 75% of the way up, about 3-4 minutes. To get a nice sear on the other side, drizzle olive oil on top before flipping.
  10. Sear the other side for about 3 minutes.
  11. To serve, place a mound of rice in a shallow bowl. Place the fillet on top of the rice and ladle broth into the bowl. Garnish with cilantro leaves.

Curry Battered Barramundi Sandwiches with Garlic Aioli

I came across Barramundi a.k.a. Asian Sea Bass in a search to find new types of fish to try. Apparently it’s very popular in Australia and Thailand, I assume since it’s native to that region. This fish is also starting to become popular in the US. In the US, Barramundi is farmed in fully recirculating systems that are eco-friendly and sustainable. Barramundi that are imported should be avoided since they are usually farmed in open net pens or cages that risk disease and pollution. When purchasing seafood, I try (and recommend) to buy from sustainable sources and purchase seafood that are not overfished or farmed in ways that damage the ecosystem and environment. So the next time you’re craving Atlantic Halibut or Chilean Seabass, try Barramundi! It has slightly buttery and very flaky white flesh. High in omega-3s, it’s a great alternative to other types of white-fleshed fish. It’s also versatile in terms of cooking technique. It’s able to be grilled, pan-fried, baked, steamed and poached. We topped our sandwiches off with pickled cucumbers and radishes to give a tang and crunch to the taste and texture.

Directions

  1. In a non-stick frying pan or cast iron skillet, heat the canola oil.
  2. Rinse the Barramundi fillet under cold water and pat dry. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Slice lengthwise into two.
  3. Pour the beaten egg into one large dish. Into another large dish, stir together the flour, cumin and turmeric.
  4. Dip the fillets into the beaten egg and then dredge with the flour mixture.
  5. Pan-fry the fillets, about 3-4 minutes on each side.
  6. For the garlic aioli, mix together the minced garlic and mayonnaise.
  7. Slice open the baguettes and spread the garlic mixture.
  8. Place one pan-fried fillet into each sandwich.
  9. Add in the pickled cucumbers and radishes (optional).
  10. Add in sliced tomato and cilantro (optional).
  11. Squeeze lime juice over each sandwich.