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Sunday, October 28, 2012

5 Condiments I'm Loving Right Now

I've been thinking about this post for a few months. I had a friend over for dinner and ended up spending the evening answering questions about the unusual ingredients in my fridge and pantry. I didn't realize, until that night, that when it comes to cooking - I'm a bit of an oddity.

Since I was eighteen and able to do my own grocery shopping, I've been drawn to unusual foods. There is a crack-high thrill that comes from finding an ingredient or dish that no one's told me about, and tasting it for the first time. My poor husband gave up arguing with me after the first year. I've never been a shoe maven (my feet are too big to have that problem) nor do I get the whole $600 purse craze. My splurges come in short bursts of strange flavors from around the globe.

And let me tell you something - I am not afraid to eat things most people hide from. I remember last year at a friend's retirement party, scooping out the tongue of the roasted whole pig and trying to convince people to take a taste. It was porky and chewy, a bit like bacon wrapped octopus. I loved it. I have a rule about food - always try it twice. With that thought in mind - let me share with you some of my favorite ingredients I always have on hand. If you like to experiment in the kitchen as I do, you may find you love some of these flavors too!

1. Kekap Manis:
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I found this thick, syrupy and sweet soy sauce at an Asian grocer a few years back. I was trying to find the ingredients to make Pad See Ew, giant river noodles stir-fried in a spicy sweet sauce, made with kekap manis. I have since fallen in love with this concentrated, umami-rich condiment. Use it in stir-fries, as a marinade base for meat, even in Asian inspired stews! I use a whole chuck roast, a few tablespoons of kekap manis, a star anise pod, ginger, garlic, onions, chili flakes and Chinese-five-spice and beef broth to create an amazing pot roast stew.

2. Sriracha:
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I hope that most of you already know about the fabulous, garlic-chili hot sauce called Sriracha. I discovered this sauce at our favorite Vietnamese phö restaurant in Kaneohe, Hawaii almost ten years ago. It quickly became a staple sauce in my home. I use it in soups, stews, on eggs and even mixed with mayonnaise and spread on a bun to make a spicy burger. The uses for Sriracha are endless. If you've never tried it, and you enjoy heat that also has flavor, you should give this bottle a try! 

3. Shitto Sauce:
Don't let the name fool you. I've already blogged about this amazing new find, Shitto sauce. It's a Ghanian condiment pepper sauce that combines dried ground fish, chicken, onions, tomatoes, hot chiles and more! The color is a deep red-brown with pearls of oil beaded throughout. The flavor is a smack of super-charged deliciousness. Nowadays, many West Africans use this sauce in soups, rice dishes, as a meat glaze, and traditionally as an accompaniment to fried fish. I am constantly learning new ways to incorporate this complex sauce into my cooking. Most recently, I chopped up turkey lunch meat, tossed it with a spoonful of Shitto and sauteed it before adding to the an omelet. I'm even thinking about using this as the main seasoning for my Thanksgiving turkey! Plus, what could be cooler than pulling out a jar of Shitto sauce to impress your friends? I didn't think so.

4. Xiaoxing (Shaohsing/Shaohxing) Rice Wine:
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Ching-He Huang from the Cooking Channel first introduced me to this Chinese staple rice wine. It has since replaced my rather bland Kikkoman rice wine vinegar. I love this stuff. It makes its way into every stir-fry I make, as well as many of my marinades and salad dressings. My newest favorite is to pickle too-hot chili peppers and English cucumbers in xiaoxing with sugar and salt. I even use this fragrant vinegar in a hogwash recipe that is spooned on raw oysters before slurping. Divine! 

And finally-
5. Ghee:
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Ghee is simply clarified butter. It hails from India, where a lack of refrigeration required home chefs to concoct a way to store butterfat in hot temperatures. It is easy to make ghee at home, simply melt down unsalted pure butter on medium heat until the butterfat and the milk solids separate. When the solids have turned golden, carefully strain the fat and viola - you have ghee. It does not have to be refrigerated, and can keep for up to a year in your cupboard, in a tightly covered jar. I love the rich, nutty taste that ghee imparts on food. It has a higher smoke point than most oils too.

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These are just five of many flavors you can add to your cooking repertoire. One of my favorite websites for finding new, fire-laced condiments is Hot Licks. They have a giant inventory of amazing, flavorful products. Also, I love hitting up local international grocers to find flavors that are unique and hard to find.

I recommend you take a chance and try a new ingredient for yourself. Every item featured in this blog is under $5, so they wont break the bank and you won't feel terrible if you decide you don't like them. I am always on the search for something new, so if you have an ingredient you want to talk about - let me know! 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Ching Ching CHA - A Chinese Tea House Experience

I feel like I blinked and October appeared.

It's been almost two months since I last wrote a blog. I'm ashamed of myself. It's not like I haven't been eating. Oh trust me, I have. There is a fine art to balancing a full-time college schedule, teenage sons, a husband, working on my professional portfolio, applying for grad-school and organizing an upcoming move across the country next year, and I haven't quite figured it out yet.

I've crawled out of my dungeon to share with my readers the amazing experience I had recently with a dear friend at a Georgetown restaurant and tea shop, called Ching Ching Cha. The following image is of the outside, and no that's not me!

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I've been there before, with my husband, and loved it. It's on Wisconsin Ave. in DC near one of my favorite spice and tea retail shops, The Spice & Tea Exchange. The first time we peeked inside, I was spellbound.

You are instantly and completely transported into an old-world tea-house in China when you step through their doors. Nothing on the outside prepares you for the glorious warmth of the rich, wood interior and aromatic teas.

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They offer teas by type and also by medicinal properties. The first time I ordered the Organic Green Hair tea which was served in a beautiful glass tea pot and strainer that allowed me to view the infusion as it occurred.

The servers take the time to explain how to brew your tea, and keep a fire lit under the stone tea-pot at every table, that is frequently refilled with fresh water for brewing. What I didn't know then, but realized on my second sojourn there, was that nearly every tea is brewed differently, and they serve each patron with a specific tea-pot and brewing lesson.

Before I move on the the second experience at Ching Ching Cha, I'd like to mention the delicious food they offer. My husband and I shared a Tea Meal which came in a bento-style  box with different steamed vegetables like cabbage with a touch of sesame oil, snow peas, green squash and hearty kale. We selected the miso mustard salmon to accompany our vegetables, and it was delicate, masterfully flavored and incredible on our palates. The Tea Meal includes a scoop of steamed jasmine rice and a bowl of Chinese-style tomato soup.

I am not a Chinese-food connoisseur, I find the food at places like Panda Express and China #1 to be greasy, salty, and toxic to my system. I knew that authentic Chinese food was not the stuff of food courts in crowded malls, and was relieved that Ching Ching Cha took great care in serving balanced, delicious, and nutritious Chinese food to its patrons.

Knowing the restaurant was magical, my husband and I had to take my friend Stacey who had driven up from the Carolinas for a short weekend visit.  Just as I suspected, Stacey was enthralled.

The three of us took our seats and perused our menus while our hot stone tea pot was filled and lighted. My husband selected a medicinal blend of teas and roots to help promote relaxation and well being. I selected a medicinal blend that promised to give energy and "decrease the winds in the blood." Stacey ordered a beautiful Oolong tea.

Each of our teas came in separate containers. Mine and my husband's came in individual glass pots that showcased the beautiful mixture of flora and root that seemed to bloom when the boiling water was added. We were each instructed to "dump" the first fast brew, and partake of the second, third, fourth (etc) brews. The server carefully explained to us that tea gets better with each subsequent brewing, something our American tea-bag habits don't invite.

Stacey's Oolong tea was spectacular. The receptacles were placed on a simple bamboo tray and the server explained that because of Oolong's majestic perfume, it requires an extra step in brewing.

First, he poured hot water from the stone tea kettle into a red ceramic mini pot. The tea brewed in the pot for a few seconds, before he poured it into a blue and white ceramic pouring cup. Then, the tea was poured into a blue and white ceramic "shot glass" (that's not the official name!) of which Stacey was instructed to smell the tea. Then, the tea was poured from the smelling vessel into a tiny, rounded tea cup without a handle. It was a laboriously beautiful process that made drinking tea a magical experience.

I hope Stacey doesn't mind me sharing this picture of her enjoying her tea!

Stacey thoroughly enjoying her Oolong
We had a light lunch at Ching Ching Cha, which consisted of an order of vegetable dumplings, lamb dumplings, and a marbled egg.

The egg was fantasmic. It was boiled in a syrup of soy, star anise, clove, peppercorns and tea leaves. Through a traditional cooking process, the egg is gently cracked during the boil to allow the syrup to penetrate the firmed whites, created a visually appealing marble across the egg. The deep umami flavors of the seasonings turned a hard boiled egg into a moment of silence, followed by groaning.

The delicate dumplings were equally delicious. If you are used to chewy premade wonton wannabe dumplings, you will be amazed at the almost petal-like softness of these bite-size snacks.

The lamb was my favorite, and it was seasoned similarly to the marbled egg. Delicious.We finished our teas and our snacks and felt revived. Not even a massage could compare.

Walking out of Ching Ching Cha feels like leaving a treasure behind. You don't want to go, but you know you must. You're changed by the experience, and it leaves an indelible mark on your tea-drinking soul.

If you're anywhere near the area, take the time to visit this amazing hidden gem deep. You won't be mad at me. I promise.