Chawan Mushi (茶碗蒸し) with Chicken and Thai Basil (Horapha)

basil_chawanpChawan Mushi is together with Okonomiyaki, among my favourite Japanese dishes. Its base, ( light savoury egg custard) is neutral enough to receive even the craziest ingredients, such as Thai basil, which I have been using more often than ever due to my recent Thai cooking frenzy. One day, ready to cut some mitsuba leaves, the chawan mushi herb par excellence, I turned to Thai basil and took it from my balcony instead. I wasn’t taking big risks, but I was glad this first Thai-inspired Chawan Mushi proved fantastic.

For those who hear about Chawan Mushi(茶碗蒸し) for the first time, it’s a delicate savoury egg and stock custard steamed in cups. “Mushi” means (more or less) “steamed” and “chawan”: tea bowl (or cup). My first chawan mushi was made according to Shizuo Tsuji’s instructions in “The Japanese Cooking. A Simple Art”, but already then I omitted some ingredients and created my own version. Apart from being easily modified, chawan mushi is perfect with buttered crusty bread (my favourite way!) and a green salad or other raw vegetables, but also with rice and Asian pickles. It can be served both hot and cold (the latter is particularly appreciated cooling meal on hot summer days). I have served this Thai cuisine-inspired chawan mushi with this chilli jelly:

Chilli Jelly

Chilli Jelly

but I’m certain it would taste perfect with sriracha or with the popular Thai sweet chilli sauce. 

Thai basil (also called Asian basil and Bai Horapha/Horapha in Thai) is not the only basil used in Thai cuisine (usually three basil varieties are cited), but it’s very easy to recognise in Asian grocery shops by its very strong sweet licorice (or anis-seed) scent. Its leaves are usually green, but sometimes slightly coloured with violet hues and its flowers are always dark violet. It is very easy to grow from seeds (I have very good results even on my balcony), so if you cannot find it fresh, try sowing it. From my observations this basil is usually served cooked, added to hot dishes in the last stage of preparation. This use in Thai cuisine gave me the idea to steam horapha in Japanese custards, exactly the way the Japanese treat mitsuba and also the way I did with edible chrysanthemum leaves (shungiku, see below). I have decided to use chicken stock instead of dashi (I do it quite often in chawan mushi anyway) since it seemed to suit this herb better. As I have mentioned above, the experiment was a success and I advise it to all the Thai basil fans.

If you don’t like Thai basil (or cannot find it), you might like one of these:

Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard) with Asparagus

Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard) with Asparagus

Shungiku no Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard with Chrysanthemum Leaves)

Shungiku no Chawan Mushi (Egg Custard with Chrysanthemum Leaves)

Chawan Mushi with Shrimp and Green Peas

Chawan Mushi with Shrimp and Green Peas

TIPS:  Even though chawan mushi is easier to prepare in a steamer, Shizuo Tsuji’s suggestion to use a water bath in the oven gives excellent results. Actually this is the way I prepare it because the steamer plate in my rice cooker is too low for my heatproof cups.

If you don’t have a nearby Japanese grocery shop, individual, but high heatproof cups may be difficult to get. I have found very good ones at IKEA (even though without lids), but as soon as I got hold of the beautiful Japanese chawan mushi cups you see above, I stopped using the old ones.

If you want, you can use some vegetables together with chicken (reduce the chicken amounts), but  remember that certain vegetables and mushrooms will release juices. The custards will be watery, but the taste will be good of course. (You might want to precook or quickly fry them).

Special equipment:

individual heatproof cups (at least 6 cm high, mine were 6,5 cm high, with a 7,5 cm diameter)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Ingredients (4 portions):

3 small chicken breasts (or 2 big)

1 tablespoon sake

salt

one handful of Thai basil leaves (+some for decoration)

Custard:

2 eggs

300 ml chicken stock (usually dashi, the Japanese stock, is used here, but I often replace it with chicken stock and here I found it a better choice for Thai basil) 

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sake or mirin (with mirin the custard will be slightly sweetish)

1 teaspoon soy sauce

Preheat the oven to 220°C (or prepare your steamer).

Cut up the chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces, combine with sake and sprinkle with a bit of salt.

Put aside.

Boil a lot of water and prepare a big baking dish at least as high as the heatproof cups.

Mix the eggs very delicately in a bowl. In another bowl combine the chicken stock, salt (it depends on how salty your stock is), sake/mirin and soy sauce. Pour the stock mixture over the eggs and stir well, without beating.

Strain the chicken pieces. Divide them and the Thai basil leaves equally into four heatproof cups.

Strain the custard mixture and pour into the garnished cups.

Cover the cups with aluminium foil or the lids if you have special cups with lids.

If you use the oven, place the cups in a big baking dish. Fill the dish with hot water (not boiling). The water should arrive up till 3/4 of the cups’ height.

Put the dish in the oven and let the custards bake for 30 minutes.

If you use a steamer, steam for about 20 minutes.

Serve hot or cold with bread/toast for breakfast, with a salad for a lunch, as a snack or as a starter.

You may serve it with soy sauce, but I found it great with my chilli jelly and, as I have mentioned above, it must be good with sriracha or the Thai sweet chilli sauce.

Even though the eggs’ mixture sets during the cooking process, the mushrooms or other vegetables might release juices, so think about putting a spoon on the table!

Thai Bean Sprout Salad with Coconut (Yam Tua Nork)

thai_sproutspAs a regular coconut milk consumer I would never dream of using it in a salad. Creamy cold desserts, custard cakes, curries are the only ways I would use coconut milk until I saw this recipe in David Thompson’s “Thai Food”. Since I often don’t use the whole can and the contents don’t keep forever after opening, I was thrilled to discover this original and quick salad.

I must say that as much as I love all the ingredients, I was a bit sceptical about the final result, but I needn’t have worried: this quick side-dish proved as fabulous as all the previous recipes I found in David Thompson’s huge collection of Thai recipes. It is crunchy, creamy, slightly smokey and nutty.  Since mung bean sprouts are irritatingly perishable, I was also glad to discover a completely new way to eat them. I would probably get scolded by the very demanding author for using here coconut milk instead of the cream (I have used more of the milk). I have allowed myself also to change slightly the ingredients’ ratios, to adapt the salad to one serving and I have changed the vinegar (see below). To see the original salad, check David Thompson’s book.

Check here some other recipes including coconut milk.

TIPS: The dressing can be prepared in advance, but combine it with the sprouts just before serving to make sure they don’t wilt and don’t get soggy.

You can cut the sprouts in two to make the eating process easier.

Preparation: about 10 minutes

Ingredients (serves one as a side dish):

1 cup (about 250 ml) bean sprouts

3 tablespoons coconut cream (I have used coconut milk)

1 tablespoon vinegar (coconut vinegar is apparently used most often in Thai cuisine and it’s easily available for example in my Thai grocery shop; the author advises white vinegar diluted with water and personally I have used rice vinegar here)

Paste:

2 tablespoons grated coconut

2 tablespoons peanuts (unsalted, shelled)

1/4 teaspoon salt 

1 small Asian shallot or a very small Western one, finely sliced

1 tablespoon chopped or torn coriander leaves

First prepare the paste.

Roast the coconut and the peanuts in a dry pan.

Pound them with salt in a mortar (I have mixed in a baby food mixer).

Combine the paste, the vinegar and the coconut cream with bean sprouts, adjust the flavours (the author says it should taste smoky, rich, sour and salty) and sprinkle with shallots and coriander leaves.

Serve.

Salt Brine Pickled Chilli (Fermented Chilli)

salt_chillippA big affection for chilli peppers combined with preserving addicition leads me every year to new experiments. Chillies rarely disappoint me and this previous summer’s discovery is no exception. Simply pickled in salted brine, these chillies developped complex flavours and an amazing aroma, proving a fantastic taste-enhancing ingredient in both Asian and Western meals.

Unlike vinegar-pickling, salted brine-pickling is probably the most international preserving method (maybe only drying beats it). Actually, when I saw, in a tv program about Sichuan food, a huge jar of salt-pickled homemade chillies, it reminded me of Polish salt-pickled cucumbers. Instead of looking for a Sichuanese recipe, I simply copied my cucumber pickling method, limiting however the seasoning to salt and garlic. The traditional Polish pickling brine consists of 3 g salt per 1 liter water. This ratio worked perfectly with chillies too. I am not sure if they are similar to pickled chillies used in Sichuan, but they taste so good, I no longer care.

In order to make sure I could “advertise” this recipe, I prepared these chillies last summer. After a week of fermenting process, I closed the jars, processed them in order to halt the fermentation and put into my pantry. They were already delicious after several weeks, but after three months my chillies developped an enticing, delicate aroma (especially compared to the harsher vinegared ones) and a very moderate acidity. They stayed crunchy and of course hot, but their strength was slightly reduced. They were also much more versatile than vinegared-pickled chillies and I believe they can be incorporated – whole or chopped – into different dishes. Since the only seasoning I used is garlic, these chillies go equally well with Western as well as Asian dishes. In short, I am doing a second batch this year and strongly encourage all my fellow chilli fans to give this preserve a try.

Here are some of my other successful experiments with chillies you might appreciate:

Vinegar-Pickled Chillies

Vinegar-Pickled Chillies

Hot Peach Sauce

Hot Peach Sauce

Hot Pepper Jelly

Hot Pepper Jelly

Green Tomato and Chilli Jelly

Green Tomato and Chilli Jelly

Pineapple and Chilli Jelly

Pineapple and Chilli Jelly

Hunan Salt-Pickled Chillies/Erös Pista

Hunan Salt-Pickled Chillies/Erös Pista

Mango and Chilli Sauce

Mango and Chilli Sauce

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

Yuzu Koshou 柚子こしょう

Raimu Koshou (Chilli and Lime Zest Paste)

Raimu Koshou (Chilli and Lime Zest Paste)

TIPS: You can use here any chilli variety you like. I have used red, rather medium hot chillies from Spain (the shop assistants had no clue about the variety). Remove the seeds if you don’t want to increase the hotness level.

Depending on your jar shape you can leave the chillies whole or cut them into pieces. Whole chillies will probably be even crunchier.

Remember to wear gloves while washing and handling chillies.

Salt brine pickling is ridiculously easy but since the process involves a “good” bacteria activity, the hygiene is crucial to avoid “bad” bacteria. Make sure the jars are absolutely clean, wash well the vegetables (also the garlic!) and remember that during the fermenting process all the chillies have to be thoroughly covered by the brine. Of course they will have the tendency to float, so use a cup or a saucer (also clean) or anything heavy and clean to maintain them under the brine.

I have no idea why but the best salt for pickling is supposed to be grey rock salt. I always use this type of salt for all my pickles. I’m sure any other type of salt will be ok, but if you have a choice, try grey rock salt.

Preparation: 30 minutes + one week + 15-20 minutes

1/2 kg chilli peppers

1 liter water

3 g salt

5-10 whole garlic cloves, peeled

Wash the garlic cloves and the chillies.

If you intend to pickle whole chillies, leave them as they are.

If you want smaller, ready-to-eat pieces, remove the stems and cut up the chillies into bite-sized pieces, removing as many seeds as possible (unless you want to increase the heat level).

Put the chillies and the garlic cloves into one or several clean jars.

Bring the water and salt brine to a boil.

When the brine is still warm, but no longer hot, pour over the chilli peppers, leaving about 2,5 – 3 cm (about 1 inch) empty at the top of the jar.

The chillies will have a tendency to float, so place a smaller teacup or cup into each jar (the size should be big enough to keep the chillies covered in the brine, but of course it shouldn’t drown). Make sure the brine doesn’t overflow once the teacup/cup or another object is placed to keep the chillies covered in brine.

Place the jars at room temperature, covered with a clean cloth or, loosely with a lid (but don’t close them completely!). The idea is to keep the bugs away, but let the chillies ferment.

During the fermenting process check every day if the fermenting brine doesn’t overflow.

If it does, remove some of the liquid.

After three weeks remove the teacups or cups.

If the level of the brine is very low, boil some more water with salt (the same ratio) and fill up the empty space in the jars  with cold brine leaving about 2,5 cm-3 cm empty space at the top.

Put the clean lids on the jars and close them tightly.

If you want to keep the jars for a few weeks in the fridge (or maybe more, but I haven’t checked it), skip the following steps. If you want to keep them in the pantry for several months at least, process them as follows.

Place the cool jars into a big pan, bottom lined with an old kitchen towel folded in two (this will prevent the jars from breaking), cover up with hot – but not boiling- water to the level just below the lid. Bring to boil and keep on a very low heat, in simmering water, for around 20 minutes if the jars have a 500 ml capacity (about 2 cups). If you use smaller jars (half this size), process for 15 minutes.

Stick on self-adhesive labels, write the name of the pickle and don’t forget to mark the date.

Wait at least a couple of weeks before opening the jars. As do most pickles, this one improves with time.

 

 

Thai Squid Salad (Yam pla meuk)

squidsaladpIt has been five months since I bought Thai Food by David Thompson, a renowned Australian chef. As much as I was thrilled to own and read this beautifully edited, huge mine of information, I found it somehow intimidating and wasn’t in a hurry to cook from it. However, as soon as I tested a first recipe, I became literally addicted to this fascinating book and now I’m going through a phase of Thai cooking frenzy. Thanks to David Thompson I finally start slowly realising what genuine Thai flavours taste and smell like. Needless to say, I will never ever buy ready-to-use curry paste again.

In barely two weeks I tested – with a successful outcome - several curries, but I thought I would share with you first this quick squid salad, the most summery of all the dishes I have prepared. Its mixture of hot, tangy and sweet flavours, enriched by an explosion of a typically Thai combination of bold scents, create a fabulous refreshing treat for all the squid and Thai cuisine lovers.

I have slightly adjusted the ingredients’ quantities to my taste, so check Thai Food to read the original recipe and to learn how to cook genuine Thai dishes.

TIPS: The author advises to serve this salad immediately, after blanching the squid and, even though it is still good when served cold, I prefer it slightly warm.

Although I suppose you might successfully substitute squid with some other protein sources, I wouldn’t advise replacing any other ingredient (in my opinion only mint could be skipped here without much harm).

Preparation:

Ingredients (serves two as a starter):

2 big squids, cleaned (about 15 cm long)

3 small (Asian) shallots or two medium Western shallots

1 stalk lemongrass

2 big kaffir lime leaves

3-4 tablespoons of fresh (torn or roughly chopped) coriander and mint (I have used a 3 : 1 ratio because I preferred coriander’s taste to prevail)

Sauce:

1 tablespoons lime juice

1/2 teaspoon white sugar

2 tablespoons fish sauce

3 bird’s eye chillies

pinch of salt

First prepare the squid.

Make a big vertical cut through the body, spreading it flat and score it diagonally in two directions, on the interior side.

Cut the squid into long 2 cm thick strips. Then cut the strips and tentacles into bite-sized pieces.

Put aside.

Slice very finely the kaffir leaves (I always remove the central vein when using them raw).

Chop the shallots.

Remove the outer tough leaves from the lemongrass, the upper 1/3 of the stalk and also the lowest toughest small bit.

Slice the remaining part very finely (I have used a mandolin).

Prepare the sauce in a big bowl: seed and chop finely the chillies and combine with the remaining ingredients.

Taste the sauce and adjust it to your taste (it should be rather salty because the squid is not salted).

Blanch the squid in boiling water until it is opaque.

Drain the squid, throw into the sauce and add the remaining salad ingredients.

Give the salad a stir and serve immediately.

Greek Yogurt and Chocolate Mousse with Cherries

choco_cherry_pThis year, thanks to favourable weather conditions, cherries have appeared in France and Switzerland early, so I have been enjoying them for quite a long time. This refreshing slightly tangy dessert keeps them raw, untransformed, preserving not only their taste, but, I guess, much of the precious vitamin C. Obviously, they make a perfect pair with dark chocolate. The photograph you see above was taken last year when I was offered some black sour cherries (unavailable here), but I have tested this mousse with sweet cherries several times this year and it was equally delicious (well, to be frank… almost… if, like me, you appreciate sour cherries).

WARNING! This lighter mousse contains Greek yogurt and it will be slightly tangy in taste, so if you don’t like tanginess combined with chocolate and/or you wish to prepare a richer dessert, you might want to try the below quick eggless chocolate mousse version instead, prepared with cream (and without gelatin):

Quick Eggless Chocolate Mousse

Quick Eggless Chocolate Mousse

TIPS: The amounts of gelatin used depend sometimes on the brand. Leaves are sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller; powdered gelatin sometimes contains other products (for example sugar) and doesn’t set as well as pure gelatin in powder… In short, the aim here is to use the amount of gelatin which sets 500 ml/2 cups/about 17 oz liquid, so check the package instructions. (The whole mixture has more than 500 ml (+ cherries), so the mousse will be firm, but not hard as a standard jelly).

If you want to make this dessert quicker and in an easier way, you can omit the gelatin and you will obtain a cream rather than a firm mousse. The taste will be the same.

The colour of this mousse will depend on the chocolate’s quality. The darker it is and the higher its cocoa content is, the darker the mousse will be.

The mousses keep well (covered) in the fridge for several days.

Preparation: 20 minutes + several hours in the fridge

Ingredients (serves 4-5):

350 ml (about 12 fl oz) Greek yogurt (if you use low-fat yogurt, it might be too sour, so I cannot guarantee the same taste result)

200 g (about 7 oz) good quality dark chocolate (I use here organic, min. 72% cocoa chocolate) + some more for decoration (if you wish)

about 25 big pitted cherries + 20 for decoration

5 flat tablespoons confectioner’s sugar

(1 flat teaspoon instant coffee)

(several tablespoons kirsch)

1 tablespoon gelatin in powder or other amount necessary to set 500 ml liquid, see TIPS above (you can use leaves too, in amounts necessary to set 500 ml/2 cups liquid)

Break the chocolate into pieces and melt it in a pan on a very low heat or in a water bath (stirring and watching it constantly so that it doesn’t burn) or in a microwave (if you microwave it, do it in two-three stages because once it’s “cooked”, it cannot be used).

Put aside and let it cool down.

When the chocolate is warm, but no longer hot, pour it into a food processor.

Add the yogurt, the sugar, the coffee and the kirsch if you use it.

Mix the yogurt and chocolate mixture until smooth.
Taste if it’s sweet enough for your taste and add more sugar if needed. Mix again.

Dissolve the gelatin in 4 tablespoons warm water or even hot water if it’s advised on your package. If using leaves, soften them in cold water, squeeze and dissolve also in 4 tablespoons warm water.

Mix well the dissolved gelatin with the yogurt mixture. 

Divide the pitted cherries into individual serving bowls.

Pour the mousse over them.

Put the mousse into the fridge for 2 -3 hours until it sets.

Decorate with shaved chocolate and cherries just before serving.