Category Archives: soups

Mystery Ingredient: Sweet Osmanthus (gui hua 桂花)

Growing up with Chinese cooking in the home, there were a lot of unique ingredients that I had the pleasure of experiencing, often without even knowing how special they were. It wasn’t until I moved out of the house and started cooking out of my own pantry that I suddenly realized just how interesting some of these Asian ingredients were (and how hard they can be to obtain!). I sometimes start to worry that I might go stir crazy if I move to a place without an Asian market, because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to cook half the things I cook without one! It is my hope that through my posts I can introduce some of these interesting ingredients to all of you, and maybe the next time you wander into an Asian market, you won’t feel as intimidated by your surroundings. Maybe you’ll even experiment with a thing or two!

sweet osmanthus in bloom (Photo source: Nipic)

Enough about me, let’s talk about today’s mystery Asian ingredient – sweet osmanthus. If that name sounds completely foreign to you, don’t worry. I had to look it up just for this post! In fact, growing up, the sweet osmanthus was always called by its Mandarin name in my household: “gui hua” (桂花). It sounds something like “gway hwa”. It is the fragrant dried small yellow flowers of the sweet osmanthus tree that we value in cooking. These trees are found in Asia, particularly in eastern and southern China. And if you ever have the pleasure of visiting when they are in bloom in the fall, the fragrant flowers will woo you with the scent of apricots. The flowers can be white, yellow, or even orange. The dried flowers are tiny, about the size of rice kernels, and retain their sweet fragrance.

sweet osmanthus (gui hua)

It is this sweetness that makes the sweet osmanthus so popular in Asian cooking, particularly in the desserts. In fact, you can buy the sweet osmanthus as unsweetened dried flowers, as a jam paste, or even as an infused sugar (much like vanilla sugar). When I was younger, my mother would often prepare one of my favorite desserts, lotus root powder congee with sweet osmanthus. I know, that’s a mouthful, and you probably also have no idea what this lotus root powder congee is. Perhaps that should be its own mystery Asian ingredient post sometime! Suffice to say that it’s a thick starchy soup made from ground lotus root and flavored with sweet osmanthus sugar. It was always warm and soothing to eat… a welcome treat in the wintertime or at night. And it was never quite complete without the sweet osmanthus sugar, although it’s hard to put your finger on exactly how the flavor changes. But you just know, when it’s not there, you’re not getting the whole package. As I grew up, I began to learn that the unsweetened sweet osmanthus flowers are often infused in teas in China. Green teas and black teas, they would only need a sprinkle of sweet osmanthus before steeping with hot water, and the fragrance would bloom. What a wonderful little flower!

As it turns out, what with this tree being native to Asia and all, sweet osmanthus is pretty difficult to obtain in the US. I sort of think of it as the saffron of China. Whenever I see it in the Asian markets, sold as jam or sugar, it is at a premium price (something like $4 for a 1 oz. jar). If you are looking for it, you can sometimes find it under the name “cassia flower”, which is a literal translation of the word gui hua, but not the proper name for the flower since cassia is a different species. I have also heard that the sweet osmanthus is known as the Tea Olive down south in the US. In any case, my source of dried sweet osmanthus is typically straight from China. When I go to visit my relatives in Shanghai, they give me a baggie of the stuff, and it lasts a long time. I love infusing my tea with it, and sprinkling it into some of my desserts for a sweet fruity aroma and flavor.

This week I was making a coconut sago dessert soup at home, enjoying the lovely scent of the coconut milk as I was dissolving rock sugar into it, when I had the idea to toss in some sweet osmanthus. It was a wonderful combination! I have previously posted my taro sago with coconut milk recipe, but the one I made this week was slightly different because I did not have any taro and only had 1 can of coconut milk. The soup was  very thin (not thickened like the taro sago), but at the same time very refreshing with the nice chew from the tapioca. Some restaurants like to serve it thinned and some serve it thicker. I like both versions, depending on my mood! The sweet osmanthus definitely added a delicately sweet aroma and a little bit of that “je ne sais quoi” to the coconut milk, and thus I was inspired to write this post. While I was doing some reading on the Wikipedia article, I noticed that the sweet osmanthus supposedly has neuroprotective, free-radical scavenging, and anti-oxidant properties! A superfood of sorts! In any case, I hope you’ll find the opportunity to try it sometime, or I hope at least it was interesting to hear about :)

coconut sago with gui hua (sweet osmanthus)



Coconut Sago Dessert Soup with Gui Hua (Sweet Osmanthus) (makes 8 servings)

Recipe adapted from Taro and (Tapioca) Sago in Coconut Milk

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup dry mini tapioca
  • 1/3 cup rock sugar (or granulated sugar)
  • 1 can (14 oz.) coconut milk
  • 3 cups milk
  • generous sprinkle of dried gui hua (sweet osmanthus)

Directions:

1. Bring a pot of water to boil, and add the dry mini tapioca. Boil for 6 minutes, then turn off heat and cover, allowing the pot to sit for 15-20 minutes, until the centers of the tapioca are translucent. If they remain opaque in the centers, you may heat up the pot while stirring, until the tapioca are translucent.

2. Meanwhile, in a large pot, add the coconut milk and rock sugar, and heat on medium to medium-low. Continually stir the rock sugar until it dissolves completely. Do not let the coconut milk come to a full boil (it may curdle). Sprinkle the sweet osmanthus into the pot when the rock sugar is nearly dissolved, allowing it to heat with the coconut milk for about 5 minutes.

3. After the rock sugar dissolves, turn off heat and stir in the milk. Taste for sweetness at this point, and adjust as necessary by adding granulated sugar or more milk as desired. It should be slightly more sweet than your final desired sweetness.

4. When the tapioca is ready, pour it into a fine sieve while running cold water over it to wash off the excess starch. Add the tapioca to the pot with the milk, and stir well to break up the tapioca clumps. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled, as desired. (The coconut milk may clump slightly when chilled.) Sprinkle more sweet osmanthus on top for garnish when serving. Enjoy!

coconut sago with gui hua (sweet osmanthus)


The usual welcome home dinner

I'm home for spring break right now. Every time I come home during breaks or long weekends, my family likes to celebrate by having something special for dinner. The thing is, we always celebrate by having the same thing – fresh crab or seafood hotpot. Chinese folks tend to see seafood as the ultimate celebration food, so it's always a special treat for when I come home. In fact, every time I go home, my boyfriend can predict that I'll be eating crab or hotpot at some point during my stay haha, and he's always right!

In my hometown, there aren't any large Asian markets like there are in Boston, but there are lots of small Vietnamese grocery stores. My parents happen to know one of these stores gets new seafood stock every Thursday, so this Thursday we dropped by and had our pickings of the best and freshest blue crab in the store. They were live and kickin, always a good sign of freshness. Blue crab is probably my favorite crab variety, as they have the tenderest and finest meat of any crab I have ever eaten. While the crab itself is usually quite small (about the size of my hand) and does not have a lot of meat, the meat it does have is sweet and silky. In comparison, other larger crabs like the dungeoness, rock crab, and Alaskan king crab all have very thick fibrous meat, where the fibers are large and sometimes quite chewy. For the most delicate of crab meats, I always go to blue crab. They're nasty little suckers to try and dig into, but you are well-rewarded for your hard work! Right now also happens to be the breeding season for blue crab, as all the crab we bought this week were filled with bright orange crab roe (eggs) that are considered a delicacy.

My family prepares these crab by first giving them an hour or two to soak in a sink filled with tap water. This soaking allows the crab to sort of "wash" their gills with clean water, which helps get rid of any sand or grit that are in their gills. Blue crab are usually not farm raised, so when they are caught they tend to have sandy gills depending on where they were living. Then you simply place the crab in a pot to steam on top of some boiling water, until their shells turn a bright orange (about 15-25 minutes). We also prepare a soy and vinegar-based sauce to dip the crab meat in when we eat it. Delicious! We usually eat about two to three crab per person, and it can get messy just like eating lobster, but it's so much fun :)

We also usually prepare a starch on the side to eat, as the crab alone may not fill you up, or leave you hungry later in the evening. Dumplings are a popular choice, or something like a stir fried noodle dish. This time, my mom had picked up a few packages of freshly steamed flat rice noodle sheets rolled up with dried shrimp and scallions from the Vietnamese market. After just a nuke in the microwave, they were ready to be served with a dallop of hoisin sauce. These rice noodle sheets are delicious and soft, and are used to make the popular chow foon dishes (also called he fun in Mandarin).

Finally, my mom prepared a tasty soup of spinach, mushrooms, snow peas, and pork blood. That's right, I did say pork blood. Now don't freak out on me… pork blood isn't actually liquid blood. It's blood that's been solidified (by congealing I think) into a block whose texture resembles tofu. It's a pretty popular ingredient in Asia. You buy it in rectangular blocks, and then you dice it or cube it into small chunks to be cooked in soups or dishes. Pork blood has a very distinctive texture – something of a mix between firm tofu and liver. The flavor itself is pretty mild, I would say it's similar to a very mild liver. It sure makes for an interesting form of protein in soup. In China, one of the most popular variations is to use chicken or duck blood in soups. For some reason, chicken/duck blood has a very soft and delicate texture, very similar to silken tofu, and is therefore preferred by most people over pig's blood. I know this is probably grossing you out, but it tastes pretty good. Just don't think about liquid blood and you'll be okay… it's sorta like a pate!

 

Anyway, that was my dinner this Thursday, and it was a mighty delicious way to be welcomed home :)


Happy Belated Valentine’s Day

It's been a busy week, with school starting and coordinating Vday plans, but surprisingly I found time to cook and bake several times, so there will be updates forthcoming as soon as I get off my lazy bum to write them heh. On Valentine's Day, I was pretty excited to get my very own big heart shaped frosted cookie :D Apparently there was a lunch meeting and this cookie was the only one left over, which my boyfriend nabbed and presented to me at lunch. Yum! It was chocolate shortbread with royal icing on top, rich and buttery. We shared the cookie, but I refused to break it down the middle on principle, so we just ate from both sides until we got to the middle lol. I've always thought Valentine's Day cookies are so pretty, and even though it was a left over item from an event, it still made me giddy :)

For dinner, my boyfriend and I got off work early without any concrete plans, and after discussing it briefly we decided to relax and order in for Italian food and watch a movie together. We got our dinner from Stefani's Pizzeria, which consisted of tortellini alfredo for my boyfriend (we ordered fettucini alfredo, but apparently they misheard us), and linguini carbonara for me. We also got a nice complementary Caesar salad, soft garlic bread, and some flatbread to go with the salad. I really liked my linguini carbonara, it wasn't made with a cream sauce like most carbonaras are, instead it was made with a white wine sauce, with olive oil, shallots, mushrooms, and prosciutto. I really liked the flavor of the white wine in the sauce, it was a strong but refreshing taste that went quite nicely with the rest of the ingredients. 

We watched the Bucket List while we ate dinner, and it was such a sweet movie and it made me cry at the end. I don't know why it was given such poor reviews, but we both really liked the movie, even though it's not really a Vday kind of film. I'm a big fan of both Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, and the both of them were just wonderful in their roles. Yes the plotline is mostly formulaic and yes it moves a little slow, but the movie isn't meant to be action-packed, and I feel like both actors did a great job telling their story, and it was certainly moving. Critics might be right most of the time, but there are still many times when you should just let your own intuition do the judging.

Then for dessert we shared a decadent molten chocolate cake together, which I whipped together in no time at all (recipe to follow, with less blurry pictures). It was a delicious way to end the day and I liked being able to add a homemade touch to our meal.

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On Friday night, we had made reservations to eat dinner at McCormick & Schmick's, which is a chain seafood restaurant similar to Legal Seafood. There was a coupon for $20 off any entree, so we thought it would be nice to get dinner at a pricey restaurant without breaking the bank. The atmosphere was a bit stuffy for me, and not very romantic, with the place catering mostly to the older folk (something like a men's club). We had a pretty crazy meal that night… first we were seated in a center table, surrounded by cozy wrap-around booths, which made us feel like we had gotten brushed aside in the seating department. Next our table tilted heavily to one side if we both leaned on it (poor weight balance on the legs?), and our table candle was not lit. We ordered our food and started off with soup, clam chowder for me and Maryland crab soup for my boyfriend. (Sorry for the black & white photo… I accidentally had my flash on, after setting the white balance, so the whole thing came out with a terrible tint of blue that I couldn't fix in photoshop… so I just discarded all color information altogether haha). The thing with this restaurant is that they are very heavy with the salt in everything. The chowder itself was not bad, but a bit too salty (I definitely prefer Legal's chowder) and not as creamy as I expected it to be.

Next came the entree ordering mayhem. They have a special menu every day, based on the fresh seafood they get, which I thought was a nice idea. I was especially interested in their Atlantic salmon special, which was salmon stuffed with blue crab, shrimp, and brie. I ordered that, and Greg ordered their broiled seafood platter, which had salmon, shrimp, scallops, crab cake and stuffed clams. Later the waiter comes back to tell me that they were out of the stuffed salmon, so I had to change my order to their jumbo seared scallops instead. Then 10 minutes later, the waiter comes back to tell Greg that his dish was also out, so he had to then change his order to a yellowtail sole. Well, after all this, it's been about half an hour and our orders for dinner were just going in. Plus, we never got bread and butter, which every other table had gotten, so we had to ask for it ourselves. Finally, a server came with our dishes, and puts down a plate in front of me that I don't recognize… I stared at it for a minute, and that moment our waiter just happened to be coming by and said to the server that it wasn't my dish. Turns out, it was the broiled seafood platter that Greg originally ordered but they had run out of… interesting. So the waiter was clearly very embarrassed and confused, as the other dish the server was carrying was Greg's yellowtail sole. So the waiter gave the original seafood platter to Greg, and took back the yellowtail, and then shortly thereafter brought out my scallops entree. Very confusing.

Anyway, my entree was seared jumbo sea scallops with a saffron risotto and lobster sauce, with a side of steamed vegetables. The scallops were huge, and it doesn't look like it but I actually got 4 of them, which were more than enough for me to even finish. The saffron risotto was, although overly salted, still quite good. It was creamy, and the rice was al dente, with a slight crunch in the center, which I really enjoyed. This is the second time I've tried risotto, and let's just say the first time was terrible, with a lump that was dried and flavorless. So while this risotto was a bit too salty, it was at least better than any other time I've tried it haha. The scallops came in a bit of a brown sauce whose lobster flavor was pretty strong, not at all like lobster cream, but more like lobster stock in a sauce, reminding me a little bit of lobster bisque. The entree was very filling, although it didn't look like that much food at first. I was only able to eat 3 scallops and 2/3 of the risotto with all the veggies before I was completely stuffed to the point of being in a bit of pain heh. So certainly the portions were more than adequate. Mine and Greg's entrees were both about $24, and the soups were $6 per bowl, so the total for the meal after using the $20 coupon came out to about $45 before tip. It's not a bad price, but I think I can get a more satisfying meal experience elsewhere for that price, and less salty overload for sure heh. The one thing M&S does do very well though, is sell desserts. They don't have a dessert "menu" on paper, instead it's presented on a tray with all the desserts molded in very realistic looking plastic. They pick up each dessert to show you and tell you about it, so that it becomes very difficult to deny when the time comes. Luckily we were just literally stuffed to the gills and couldn't handle another morsel of food, but there was a very interesting looking "edible chocolate bag" filled with white chocolate mousse that looked quite delicious. Maybe another time…


Chinese style borscht and Japanese curry

There's a soup that I grew up with, which I generally recognized immediately by its bright orange color and distinctively tart aroma. In Chinese, it's called 罗宋汤 ("luo song tang"), which I just realized is the Chinese pronounciation of "Russian" soup. Apparently, after some brief research, it turns out that this Russian inspired soup actually has a name, and it's called borscht. Borscht is traditionally a deep red color because of the beetroots in the soup, but In my family's case, we make a variation of it called orange borscht, which gets its color from the use of tomato paste. Borscht is mainly a vegetable soup, made in our household with potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and onions, with some Chinese sausage as well. The Polish version of the soup usually uses Kielbasa instead, but like I said, this is Chinese style borscht :) I suppose China being so close to Russia means that there is bound to be cultural exchange within the cuisine. My mom likes to make things easy by using ketchup in this soup instead of real tomato paste, and I think the taste is great either way. It's tart but balanced out by the sweetness of the cabbage, and it's always hot and hearty, great for a cold winter's day.

Another fantastic dinner for a cold night is of course, curry. I'm most fond of Japanese curry, which is more savory-sweet than traditional Indian curry, so I make it quite often, which you'll know if you have read my Vox far enough into the past. This time was no different! For a very generous pot of curry (probably serves 5-7 people), we used 4 medium potatoes, 4 carrots, 1 large onion, and about one and a half pounds of chicken (mixture of thigh and breast meat). The curry comes in a box as soft solid cubes (roux cubes) that can simply be dissolved in boiling water to make the curry paste. The taste is indistinguishable from the Japanese curry served at restaurants, and it's so satisfying knowing that there's always more on the stove if you want seconds :) My boyfriend also made a side of garlic stir fried broccoli to go with dinner, so we definitely got our fix of veggies for the day, which is definitely an accomplishment haha.


Happy New Year!

Well, it's officially 2008! I didn't have a New Year's Eve feast of any sort, but I've been enjoying lots of down to earth home-cooked food at home, prepared by my mom. I'm going to miss it terribly when I leave to go back to school in a few days. So, as far as resolutions go, I guess eating better (not tastier but healthier!) and exercising more always tops the list. I think finding time to cook more of my own meals is also up there. I'm hoping I'll be slightly less busy this semester. And, for a non-food-related resolution, I'm going to work on finding a partner to travel with to China this coming summer. It'll be my last real "free" summer before my life gets sucked away by medical school, so I want to make sure that I get a chance to travel and see my relatives in China that I haven't seen in about 8 years now. Hopefully one of my friends will want to take some time off and have some fun traveling with me :)

Now then, back to the yummy stuff… here's some of what I've been enjoying while at home:

One of my favorite comfort dishes of all time is my mom's noodles with Chinese spaghetti sauce. The sauce is made with ground pork, eggs, and a variety of minced vegetables that happen to be on hand. This time, she added black wood ear fungus, onions, and scallions. Everything is sauteed in a pan with a soy and oyster based sauce, which is very different from Italian spaghetti sauce. It's a wonderful savory brown sauce, and is often done poorly at Americanized Chinese restaurants (too salty, too thick, vegetables too chunky), which is always a disappointment for me. Just imagine, going out and seeing one of your favorite dishes on the menu, only to get something completely different from what you were expecting. This is the reason that I always ask my mom to make me some when I come home :)

Shanghainese people love their soups. We spend hours and hours simmering soups that are full of flavor but still light and refreshing, and we always like to start off our meal with soups whenever possible, as a way to prepare and clean the palette. Soups are unfortunately a luxury I cannot afford at school, as I simply don't have the time to be simmering away on a stove all day, nor do I have a big enough dutch oven. This particular soup is made from simmering water with a young hen (using things such as chicken and beef stocks is such blasphemy in Chinese soup-making). My mom puts lots of sliced ginger in the water, as well as some white pepper. After the soup has simmered for several hours, she puts in some other items such as sliced Chinese sausage and chunks of winter melon. Winter melon is this big green melon with a stark white flesh surrounding a small cavity full of seeds, just like a honeydew. You can find winter melons at Asian supermarkets, where they are usually sold in sections instead of the whole melon. You remove the outer skin and the seeds, and then cut the melon into rectangular chunks to boil in the soup. They are ready when they turn translucent and become soft (they should not have any crunch to them). Winter melon has very little flavor of its own, but absorbs the soup and is very refreshing. Finally, the soup is finished off with salt as necessary, and topped with scallions. It's very simple, but wonderfully appetizing. It really brings out the gentle flavor of the chicken, and is a very healthy soup with all that winter melon to add to your vegetable intake!

My mom made this dish to take to a potluck, and left me a little platter all decorated with a ring of broccoli, how cute! She used flounder filets, which were lightly floured and fried, before tossing with black wood ear fungus, sliced bamboo shoots, and onions in a soy and black vinegar-based sweet and sour sauce. She loves to make this for dinner parties, because it's easy to do but tastes like you spent hours trying to prepare it.

I'm big on both mung bean and soy bean sprouts. The difference is that the mung bean sprouts have no real mung bean left on the ends of them, since they sprout from the beans themselves, whereas the soybean sprouts have that characteristic crunchy yellow bean at the ends. These are great as a main vegetable in a dish, because the crunchy beans really command your attention (whereas the mung bean sprouts tend to be used as a garnish). My mom stir fries them with thinly sliced pork in a soy-based sauce (yes, we like soy…). Just one warning: while mung bean sprouts can be eaten raw, soy bean sprouts should not be. It can lead to diarrhea

Remember the pork liver dish I got in California just a little while ago? Well it's also one of my favorites, and my mom knows this, so she went out and bought pork liver to make for me when I came home :) When she makes pork liver, she likes to make it very simple, without lots of extra vegetables to distract from the unique flavor and texture of the liver. It's made with a brown sauce, that is, you guessed it, soy and oyster sauce based. She also added some sha cha sauce (Chinese bbq sauce) to it, and threw in some scallions for color and contrast. The pork liver was tender and the sauce was at just the perfect flavor and consistency, with a bit of sweetness to offset the saltiness. Mmm delish!

My family is never far from its trusty Shanghai bok choy. I know you've seen it on my Vox a zillion times, but part of going home is eating more veggies too, right? My mom likes to sautee these until they become pretty soft, while I like them a bit more crunchy. Granted, since these are part of the mustard plant family, the rarer the vegetable is, the more likely you will encounter a mildly pungent sting, something 100 times milder than wasabi.

Fried rice is my mom's go-to dish for a quick and easy dinner when she's terribly busy. It's a lot less greasy than anything you'll encounter in a Chinese restaurant, and the rice is more tender, even though we use day-old rice (ever had that dreadful fried rice where the rice kernels are hard and chewy? bad!). We don't use a lot of soy in our fried rice, so it's not dark brown either.

Finally, more soup! This one uses the leftovers we had from our hotpot dinner, which means shrimp balls, fish balls stuffed with ground pork, tofu, and flounder filets. I think we threw in some iceberg lettuce and mung bean sprouts too. Tasty and filling soup, definitely makes a meal for lunch.

Happy new year, and eat well! :)


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