Strawberry & pear agar-agar

This was part of my menu for a tea party. I had to choose some foods to suit the extremely hot weather at the moment, as well as things that would go well with Chinese tea. I flipped through my summer wagashi recipe books and decided that a co0l, non-melting kanten/agar agar dish would go down well.

strawberry & pear agar-agar

strawberry & pear agar-agar

Started out planning green tea and red bean agar, but found my matcha had expired and turned a dusky brown colour *yuck*. Looking around in the kitchen for tasty alternatives, I found  some strawberries in the fridge — small Korean strawberries which, if you’re lucky, can be very sweet. This batch wasn’t, so I didn’t mind using them to make agar-agar instead of enjoying fresh with crème frâiche (Carrefour’s La Reflets de France premium house brand, great with scones too).

I put the strawberries into the microwave for a short while, then mashed them with a potato masher (a fork will also do). As there were only  a few strawberries, I chucked in some canned pears leftover from the improvised gluten-free pear muffins, and mashed up the whole lot.

Measured the fruit puree then added water to make up 1 litre. Put in quite a lot of sugar, which I normally wouldn’t do but since these were for a party, the tastebuds of the guests took priority over my own food preferences.

Heated the mixture and added the agar-agar powder according to the packet instructions, then chilled it in moulds. Super easy and they were a big hit!

The full tea party menu:
Strawberry & pear agar-agar
Pumpkin walnut sponge cake [adapted from this]
Earl Grey creme caramel [using this basic recipe]
Chinese “gong fu” tea: oolong and pu-er

Improvised gluten-free muffins (basic recipe)

improvised gluten-free pear muffins

improvised gluten-free pear muffins

I remember the time when I was really scared to start gluten-free baking because it seemed so complicated, so many types of flour, so easy for things to go wrong, for the baking to fail. A couple of weeks ago, I baked some muffins (if you can call them that) without following any gluten-free recipe book and amazingly, the product was edible!

All I did was to try a direct substition of wheat flour with a gluten-free flour blend in my original basic muffin recipe. Yes, the very first basic muffin recipe, which I subsequently stopped using when I found basic recipe no. 2 gave better results. Basic muffin recipe no. 1 is so easy that you can easily by heart:

2 cups flour
1 cup milk/liquid
1/4 cup oil/butter
1 egg (2 , if you prefer)
1 tsp baking powder
other ingredients of choice – e.g. 1 chopped apple, handful of nuts/dried fruit etc.

I used exactly those quantities together with a few large chunks of tinned pears, and made up the 1 cup liquid with half milk and half pear juice from the tin. Apart from the pears and pear juice, no added sugar. (If you are avoiding salicylates, remember to choose pears in syrup as commercial pear juice contains the peel which has salicylates. Of course if you are on an anti-candida diet, the syrup is probably worse!)

The gluten-free flour blend is the one I described earlier:

8oz/225g brown rice flour
8oz/225g tapioca starch
8oz/225g soy flour

No xanthan gum, no gelatine.

The batter was extremely wet, but I decided to go ahead without adding extra flour. The consistency (and eventual effect) reminded on a crazy improvisation attempt when I dumped a load of mashed pumpkin into a gluten-free sponge cake recipe, thereby completely altering the ratio of liquid to other ingredients — a crazy attempt which I did not blog about because I can’t even remember exactly what I did (brain must have gone on strike, hence giving rise to the mad improvisation to begin with); started out being utterly disappointed with the result and subsequently very pleased when put aside my preconceptions and realised the texture was quite appealing and the taste pretty good.

The result:

It looked beautiful at the end of baking, but collapsed as it cooled after coming out of the oven, just as this gluten-free bean bread did. I’ve discovered the quick bread gluten-free recipe that doesn’t sink is this one that uses gelatine as well.

Taste-wise, I was very pleased although visitors to my home who tasted a bite responded only with a grimace masquerading as a polite smile :). Texture-wise, I’ll repeat what I’ve said in my other gluten-free baking entries; it reminds me of Southeast Asian kueh or steamed cakes, soft and very close-textured, no ‘crumb’, kind of squishy.

The overall effect of the non-wheat taste and texture is certainly very reminiscent of local desserts, so perhaps if I dropped names like ‘muffin’ or ‘cake’ and called it kueh, people would have different expectations and not react so negatively towards my gluten-free baking!

Considering making pickled vegetables

As long-standing readers here may have noticed, I like the idea of making from scratch at home products which are often bought as ready-made commercial products. I’ve had a reasonable amount of success with soya bean milk, tofu and salted eggs, which are all very easy.

I’ve also considered making soya sauce at home. While it can be done, as I mentioned in my earlier posting, I’ve decided not to try (at least for now) after chatting to a food scientist who used to work at Kikkoman. During the commercial production process at Kikkoman factories, there is assiduous testing to make sure that the fermentation process does not attract toxic microbes instead of the ‘right’ kind of bacteria, which can easily happen. I’ve also heard how difficult it is to make tempeh at home, and I assume it’s partly for those same reasons.

Another type of food I thought of making at home is Chinese pickled vegetables: mui choy, chye poh, kiam chye — all the things that would give the right ‘kick’ to my somewhat bland dishes. Today’s Sunday Times food question column by Chris Tan addressed this precise issue. The bad news is:

They are not as easy to make as they might seem, requiring successive rounds of drying, seasoning, salting, brining or steaming. These methods may look simple or crude but they are very sensitive to the quality of the starting ingredients, the ambient humidity and temperature as well as the microbes naturally present in the immediate environment.Hence, an experienced eye is needed to tell if the fermentation or preservation is proceeding correctly. Doing this kind of multiple-stage preserving at home is very tricky, frequently entailing much trial and error. Therefore, nowadays most people are content to leave it to the specialists.

The good news is that “many Asian cuisines have easy recipes for mildly sour, briefly fermented pickled greens that are designed to be made and consumed within a few days.” Examples of pickled gai choy, which is a kind of mustard green, include Laotian som pak, Filipino burung mastasa and Vietnamese cai chua or dua chua.

The advice from Chris Tan concludes with this advice:

The Japanese pickling tradition also has many quick pickle recipes. For a good introduction to methods and ingredients, I recommend the book Tsukemono: Japanese Pickled Vegetables by Kay Shimizu.

I don’t have that particular title, but have already been pouring over TSUKEMONO―Japanese Pickling Recipes (Quick&Easy) which is part of my collection of food books. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with how the different types of Japanese pickles taste and I’m not a big enough fan of pickles in general to go all out on experimenting. I wonder if quick pickles will taste more like nonya acar, rather than anything like chye poh…?

Mock poh piah

A long while back, I was brainstorming ideas for dishes that would meet the requirements of a Failsafe diet, i.e. free of additives, low in salicylates, amines and flavour enhancers, and yet have an Asian flavour. At that point, my only guide were the recipes in books by Sue Dengate, founder of the Food Intolerance Network, and because they were entirely geared towards an Australian diet, I really wanted to find some flavours closer to home.

During the brainstorming, poh piah was one of the traditional dishes I thought could be adapted. Of course, by leaving out the sweet flour sauce, bee cheo, and chilli, key components of the taste of poh piah are gone, but at least the shape and form of the dish provides variety in what could easily become a very limited diet.

Poh piah pretend

The photograph in the title header of this blog shows the surprisingly successful result of a ‘quick and dirty’ mock poh piah. Forget the time complicated and time-consuming methods of cooking the filling and making the egg skin, this is actually a simple stir-fry of bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, carrots, spring onion topped with hard-boiled egg and wrapped in an eggy crepe (no recipe, sorry, simply made by approximating the batter consistency and using a higher proportion of egg than usual) ^_^.

To imitate poh piah more closely, cut the vegetables for the filling into strips, and use the same basic ingredients for the filling: bamboo shoot and bangkuang/jicama, streaky pork, prawns and taukwa/firm tofu. Fry chopped garlic, add organic miso as a replacement for Chinese fermented bean paste, taucheo, before adding the other ingredients to simmer as per these instructions.

In the end, I guess it’s not really much of a poh piah at all (though closer to the real thing than ‘mock duck‘ is anything like real duck, I’d say!), perhaps more similar to the various types of rolls pictured in Japanese bento cookbooks. However the familiar poh piah-like textures of the vegetable strips and springy egg skin really broke the monotony of my daily rice & stir-fry meals.

[17/1/08 Update: Lunch in a Box often does ‘leftover remakes‘, so check out what happened when leftover mock poh piah went into a bento.]

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