From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mandarin - Duck, Orange, Cuisine...

It has been cold at home lately, and I have been craving a REALLY good soup that I can whip together quickly.  Sadly, what I have been craving I have not had the ingredients for: A REAL Hot and Sour soup.  My favorite part of Hot and Sour Soup is its treasure chest of tastes.  There is always so much in it that invariably, I either want another bowl, or I end up having to rummage through the pantry to find something else to satisfy my  tastebuds.  Hot and Sour Soup is a true respresentation of Mandarin Cuisine, as, like the region in China, it incorporates many different flavors and visual perspectives. Garnish a bowl of soup that you are served with sesame oil, green onions and a dash of white pepper and you will have added a whole new realm of depth to the flavor.  

Mandarin style cuisine, when cooked well, presents a stunning visual offering, as well as a delectable dining experience. In Mandarin style cooking, presentation is everything. Whether making a crispy Peking Duck or simply a bit of Mu Shu Pork, it has to be done with style.

Mandarin style cuisine links style and flavor together, pairing mild spices together with the colorful array of vegetables.  They also blend sweet with sour, and crispy with refined and smooth.  The plate that is used as the palette will normally have a mixture of colors and aromas that will wow the crowd.

The Mandarin style cuisine is a combination of influences from all the provinces of China, as it is nestled in the center of all of the action. At the same time, it brings with it an individuality of its own. The finest chefs in the land doing their utmost to create the finest dishes have come from the region, as they are accustomed to having to cook for royalty, as was their responisibility generations ago. The benefit that we reap as a result of this style of cooking is a delightful array of the finest Chinese dishes.

Even smaller dishes often receive elaborate treatment. 'Snack food' such as scallions coated with dark soy paste might well be presented in a range of colors. The colors could be created by using boiled egg yolk, sliced just so in order to represent a flower. Or, they might be formed from multi-colored vegetable dishes combining carrot, beet and green onions.

Breakfast dishes as stir-fried tomatoes paired with scrambled eggs make for a healthy breakfast that is at the same time highly colorful. The goal is to delight all the senses, not just taste.

Surprisingly, wheat, not rice, is the staple starch option.   But far from being a mundane structural element, Mandarin dishes with wheat products are a work of art. Whether in the form of Mandarin pancakes or used as a Mung Bean wrap for pork, it is always done with flair.

Ever thought you had a taste of Mandarin Cuisine?  Want a truly royal Mandarin dish, but don't have time for something complicated? Try some of the traditional hot and sour soup that is a classic of the genre. Filled with bamboo shoots, chopped chicken, mushrooms and chili oil, you'll find it a feast for the eyes and tongue. Seasoned with red peppers to make it hot and vinegar to make it sour, even a simple Mandarin dish is a kaleidoscope for the senses.

Thinking fondue? Go Mandarin style with a Hot Pot. A simmering bowl of thinly sliced beef or chicken, combined with leafy green vegetables, egg dumplings and mushrooms, this stew is both healthy and delicious. Throw in an ox bone and call yourself a native-style chef.  Something simpler?  Rice soup, with strips of raw marinated white fish, or lightly sauteed chicken strips, or duck, tossed into boiling hot rice soup at serving will create a savory meal perfect for a cold day.

After you taste a bit of Mandarin cuisine you will discover the true meaning of 'Chinese Food' and in its finest representation of the cultural collaboration. You'll never be the same again.

Have a Safe and Happy New Year, and for now, Good Eating, Friends...

Colin's Hot and Sour Soup

Serves Plenty


  • 3 Eggs, whisked

  • 1 cup Cornstarch Slurry

  • 1 packaged Firm Tofu, diced into tiny cubes

  • 1 cup rehydrated Dried Mushrooms

  • 1 cup bamboo shoots, finely julienned

  • 1 cup cooked chicken ,diced finely

  • 1 cup green onions

  • 4 ounces soy sauce

  • 4 ounces vinegar

  • 2 tablespoons tabasco

  • 1 gallon Chicken stock

 Bring chicken stock to a boil.  As it is boiling, whisk in cornstarch slurry to create a slightly thicker base.  Once you have your thickened base,  while stirring slowly, pour scrambled egg into broth in a thin ribbon.  This will result in a cooked ribbon of egg in your broth. 

Add all other ingredients, bring back to a boil, and enjoy.

For added flavor, a splash of sesame oil, a teaspoon of green onions and a dash of white pepper over the top will serve quite nicely.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Journey Back East, to the FAR East.

Every now and then, even the BEST cook can make a mess of a good recipe.  I think that happened last night.  I was trying to make a Ground Beef with spicy Beijing Sauce and I tried to do it without ALL of the necessary ingredients.  Another HUGE mistake I made was not checking to make sure that the ground beef I was using was NOT pre-seasoned.  Yeah, there are grocery stores here in San Antonio that offer pre-seasoned ground beef, which, for all other uses, is pretty good.  But when you want to make a dish that features its own bold flavors, you must make sure that the meat itself is fresh and plain.  The mixing of sauces that I had with the pre-seasoned beef created a flavorful but overly salty final product.  Very disappointing, as all of the mechanics were there. And to think: I had wanted to make a Szechuan meal for the family...

Szechuan Style Cuisine

Nestled in the mountains, with the famed Himalayas to the north, Szechuan province has given the world a unique cuisine. In English, the province is also often misspelled Sichuan. The more common spelling is influenced by the Cantonese dialect. Whether it's Kung Pao chicken, Ma Po Tofu or Bang Bang Chicken, Szechuan cooking is renowned for being hot and spicy.  It was often the featured style of cooking by Iron Chef Chen Kenichi, the most successful Chinese Chef in the original production of Iron Chef.
The reputation for hot and spicy food is well deserved. The hot, humid climate of the Szechuan province accelerates food spoilage. Pickling, drying salting and smoking with spices help preserve food as well as opening the pores to cool the body. But far from chiefly practical concerns, the spicy foods native to this region of China simply tastes delicious.

Szechuan chefs are well known for using liberal amounts of garlic and dried chili peppers of different varieties. Their use creates a taste sensation that not only wakes up the palette but is said to satisfy the soul.  While Kung Pao Chicken is one of the most well known dishes and recipes, the Szechuan province does offer many dishes that utilize little or no seasoning.
But there's much more to Szechuan cuisine than merely stimulating the tongue with chemical heat. In the realm of spices alone the food is rich in garlic hints and full of the flavorful salts popular in the region.

Szechuan cuisine is full of heat and spice and not even vegetables are spared the fire of their savory sauces.
While spice is generally the featured taste, sweet offerings are equally easy to find whose origins come from the region. Beet root and cane sugar often provide a sugary taste to a dish here. They're then combined with everything from orange peel to ginger from pickled vegetables to bean paste and from vinegar to sesame oil. That gives food in the province a combination of delightful flavors. For, Szechuan cuisine is nothing if not varied. While it may be more famous for spicy dishes, there is a wide range of tastes that make up native recipes.

Even the noodles in this once-forgotten area of the country are distinctive. Though made from wheat just as are ordinary noodles, the result is anything but mundane.
BuIf you don't think your tongue or your stomach can handle the heat, not to worry. The hot oils that secure Szechuan spices to the noodles, beef and other solid food are easy to deal with. Drinking water is of limited help, since oil repels it. Water won't wash the hot spice away. A bite of rice, a drink of beer or a bit of plain bean paste can help ease the situation.

While you have time to cool off, Good Eating, Friends...

Ground Beef with Beijing Sauce Over Noodles

If you don’t have bean sauce, it is acceptable to substitute hoisin sauce or oyster sauce and omit the sugar. To save time, boil your noodles according to package instructions while you’re cooking. I’ve added dried peppers, but of course you can leave them out if you’d like. If you enjoy spice, try the “hot bean sauce” instead of the regular bean sauce, add more dried chilies and leave the seeds in or use chopped fresh chilies instead.  Serve over your grain of choice.
serves 4
For the sauce

1/4 cup stock (chicken/beef/veg)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon ground bean sauce

1/2 tablespoon cooking wine

1/2 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons cooking oil

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

1/4 cup minced onions

4 dried chili peppers, cut in half, seeds shaken out/discarded

1 pound lean ground beef or chicken

1/2 cup frozen vegetables (I used carrots and peas), no need to defrost

1/2 cup chopped baby corn (1/2 can)

1 tablespoon cornstarch slurry
cooked rice or noodles
Mix the sauce ingredients together, set aside. In a wok or large over high heat, add the cooking oil. When the oil is just getting hot, add the garlic, onions and the chili peppers, fry until fragrant about 30 seconds. Add the ground beef and stir fry for 1 minute until browned.
Add the frozen vegetables and baby corn and stir well. Pour in the sauce and turn the heat to medium. Bring sauce to a boil.
Add in the corntarch and stir for about 10 more seconds, until sauce has thickened and vegetables have achieved a shiny glaze. Taste and adjust for seasoning – you may add a little more soy sauce if needed. Serve over noodles or rice.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Achieving Culinary Bliss in Under an Hour with Steak Diane

"I hated it.  Don't ever cook it again."
"Aagh!! What?!?!?... Oh..."

The first statement? Coming from my wife after eating a dinner of Steak Diane served with fresh steamed asparagus and sauteed new potatoes.

The response? Coming from me, initially dismayed, then understanding the sarcasm upon seeing her plate, nearly licked clean. 

It was exciting cooking a meal that Gordon Ramsay had done on live TV, in less than an hour.  Upon first viewing, I was skeptical, to say the least, to believe that such a meal, that LOOKED so good on tv could have been reproduced in person in such a short period of time.  But I made it happen.   That included all the necessary prep time, and with all the tricks of the trade.  (Yes, I even flambed the darned thing, even though as you can see in the picture, I had to use a butane lighter as I am not fortunate enough to cook with gas...) I used Hennessey, as that was the only cognac I had on hand, and I wasn't keen on the idea of going to buy a bottle of brandy specifically for this dish, although, in hindsight, I do still have egg nog from the holidays in the refrigerator.  There were no battle scars this round, and the flame leaping from the saute pan did NOT burn anything down.

The aromas wafting from the stove made my daughter come running into the kitchen saying "What smells soooo good?"  (I love it when that happens...)

I was, at first glance, concerned that I would have to use multiple pans, as my wife is trying to get me to cook without making such a mess, but I realized that it would simply have to be done that way.  Thankfully, there were no surprises.  The sauce was a creamy goodness, with the sauteed shallots adding a sweet touch to the flavor and the garlic presenting itself in only a complementary fashion, instead of my preferred bold kick in the pants.  The only steps I may have modified were in the amount of Worcestershire Sauce and Dijon mustard.  Maybe just a wee bit more. 

And I would definitely have not tried to save money by purchasing a lesser grade steak.  Sadly, I purchased a Top Round, which comes from the top of a cow's hind legs, thus resulting in a tougher, stringier steak.  I should have gone with the New York Strip which comes from the top part of the loin, which is relatively un-used and  more marbled, thus creating a more tender steak.  It was, overall, a gloriously flavored meal, with the seasonings blending well.

This meal was served with my trademark X-rated Fruitini.  It is a neat blend of X-Rated Liquor, Bacardi Razz and Finlandia Mango Vodka.  It was a truly bold taste, designed to blend the tartness of blood oranges with the sweetness of mango.  It actually ended up tasting like a grapefruit.  Truly delicious. 

The only downside to the meal was that it left us craving a sweet treat for dessert.  So, for future reference, have a quick dessert ready.  It was truly amazing that this meal was able to be done within an hour, on a weeknight, with minimal preparation and maximum flavor and results. 

Now, I guess, back to the Chinese food...

Until then, Good Eating, Friends...

Steak Diane by Colin

4 x small sirloin steaks, approx 7 ounces each

3 shallots, peeled

8 ounces crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
(if crimini unavailable use button mushrooms instead)

3 tablespoons salted butter

1 garlic clove, peeled

1 -2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, to taste

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/3 cup brandy or cognac
(I used Hennessey, as it was all I had available, with great results)

1 cup heavy cream

Small handful of flat-leaf parsley

Sautéed Potatoes

1 pound small waxy potatoes cut in half

3 small sprigs of rosemary
(If fresh rosemary is not readily available, dried rosemary that has been soaked in water for about 10 minutes will work fine.)

2 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon salted butter
Olive oil

Pre-heat oven at a low temperature (170c/325f/Gas3).
Cook the potatoes in a pot of boiling salted water for 10 minutes or until just tender. Drain the potatoes and set aside.
Using a rolling pin, roll out the steaks to flatten and cut off any excess fat. Season the steaks on both sides with salt and pepper.
Heat a little olive oil in a skillet pan large enough to accommodate the 4 steaks in one layer. Quickly sauté the steaks for up to a minute on each side then remove from the pan and set aside to rest.
Drain any excess oil from the pan and re-heat with some fresh olive oil. Put the potatoes in cut-side down and season with salt and pepper. Leaving their skins on, lightly crush the garlic cloves and add with the sprigs of rosemary. Once the potatoes have begun to color toss through the butter and cook for a further 1 -2 minutes. (The potatoes can be kept warm in the oven once cooked.)
To make the sauce for the steaks, heat some olive oil in a separate pan. Slice the shallots and add to the pan, allow to soften briefly before slicing and adding the mushrooms with a tablespoon of butter. Crush in the garlic using a garlic press.
Add the Worcestershire sauce, then the mustard and heat through for a minute. Turn up the heat and tilt the pan away from you. Pour the brandy into the far end and allow it to ignite - be careful that the flame that flares up doesn't singe your eyebrows! Once the alcohol has burnt off, swirl the juices around the pan. Add the cream and allow the sauce to thicken before turning down the heat.
Introduce the steaks back into the pan and cook a little further depending on how well done you would like them. Chop the parsley and add half to the pan.
Heat to boiling a pot of salted water.  Using steamer insert, steam asparagus for 1 minute. Pull, season to taste with salt and pepper and stir through a little butter.
To serve, remove the rosemary and garlic cloves from the potatoes before dividing them between plates with a few asparagus. Arrange the steaks alongside, spoon the sauce on top and sprinkle with the remaining parsley.

X-Rated Fruitini

1.5 ounces X-Rated Fusion Liqueur
.5 ounces Bacardi Razz
.5 ounces Finlandia Mango Vodka
3 ounces Sweet & Sour

Combine all ingredients, shake in ice, strain, serve and enjoy

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Stuffing (Us) from Apple Pie to White Wine

And so, with the passing of the Christmas Season, we are left with... Leftovers, the need to make resolutions, the need to make new resolutions, knowing that the first one isn't going to hold much water or last through the calling of delicious Valentine's treats, or Easter Brunches, and most importantly, the need to physically force ourselves to get up, walk around, get the metabolism working again, and find something healthier to eat.

And boy, did we push the envelope on unhealthy this last weekend.

Christmas Eve, at our house, with lasagna, ham, caesar salad, garlic bread and a whole countertop of dessert offerings...

Christmas Day, with family, with turkey, ham, garlic mash potatoes, green beans, croissant rolls, pecan pie and apple pie... and of course, my trademark shrimp scampi...

Not to mention all the alcohol...  We discovered that Crown Royal is the most popular choce in the family (except the day after, when we realized that we had partaken a wee bit on the excessive side the day before) and that Bacardi 151, even when mixed with any kind of soda, still burns going down. (Well, duh, it is HIGHLY FLAMMABLE...) Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio went well with the meal.  (The most amusing thought with the wine is that I had to open a bottle because I needed some white wine to deglaze the pan, and there was no other type available.)

I also discovered, to my initial delight, a new kind of beer.  I am a huge fan of Shiner, and the many different offerings that they create.  My particular favorite this time of year is their Holiday Cheer, which is brewed with pecans and peaches, yet does not overwhelm with the fruity or nutty flavor.  While at the corner convenience store, looking for some chips to go with Dave's home made salsa, I walked past the clear glass doors of the beer cooler and had to do a double take.  Was it true? A new beer to enjoy? It was called Shiner Smokehouse.  Whatever the reason, Shiner’s new offering is considered “the perfect sommer bier”, and is essentially a Helles Lager with the malt smoked over mesquite wood, in theory lending the beer a smoky flavor.

On first thought, it might seem like a smoky beer would probably be a better fit for a winter seasonal, but built on the base of a Munich lager, Smokehouse is refreshingly light enough that it could indeed be enjoyed on a hot summer day, with plenty of different meats on the barbeque, with a regular sauce to go with it, though it doesn’t necessarily have the same clean and light body that a traditional Munich lager or a light Pilsner might have.  Now please understand: this is the opinion of a regular guy, who just wanted to drink a regular beer.

My personal opinion? There is nothing worse than Shiner Smokehouse for seasonal beers.  It was an extreme letdown.  To me, drinking it was the equivalent of gargling with Liquid Smoke while chewing on a piece of firewood.  The smoky finish is anything but subtle, and MIGHT be good with chicken or sausage or brisket if (and only if) the barbeque sauce is strong enough to overtake the horrid aftertaste of the beer.  I would not be disappointed if this limited offering became a legacy of things past, and never came back.  It was such a letdown for me that I did not finish the first bottle (*gasp* alcohol abuser!!) and I left the rest of it at the house for Randy to try to enjoy. 

Aside from the beer, I thoroughly enjoyed all the food that was put in front of us.  Gastronomic delight? Absolutely.  The true success of the meals came in the simple fact that many people had their hands in the mix, puting their own personal touch in each dish, making the work much lighter.  I can't wait to do it again.  Now... how we will do it better next time?

Until then, Good Eating, Friends...

Colin's Successful Shrimp Scampi


  • 2 pounds jumbo shrimp, shelled and deveined

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 tablespoons butter

  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic

  • 1/4 cup dry white wine

  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves 

  • 1 cup tomatoes, diced

  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice 

  • 1 ounce freshly grated parmesan cheese


Put the shrimp on a large pie pan or plate and pat them completely dry with a paper towel. Arrange the shrimp so they lay flat and are evenly spaced.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Add the butter to the skillet. When the foaming subsides, crank up the heat to high, and invert the plate of shrimp over the pan so the shrimp fall into the pan all at once. Cook the shrimp, without moving them, for 1 minute. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Turn the shrimp over and cook for 2 minutes more. Transfer the shrimp to a bowl.

Return the skillet to the heat and pour in the wine and lemon juice. Boil the liquid until slightly thickened, about 30 seconds. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Stir the  parsley into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the shrimp, season with salt and pepper to taste and toss to combine.

Divide the shrimp among 4 plates over cooked pasta or arrange on a platter and serve.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

These are a few of my Favorite Things... Gastronomic Musings before Christmas...

A man having lunch at a Chinese restaurant noticed that the table had been set with forks, not chopsticks. He asked why. The waiter said “Chopsticks were provided only on request.”

“But, “the man countered, “if you gave your patrons chopsticks, you wouldn’t have to pay someone to wash all the forks.”

“True,” the waiter shot back, “but we would have to hire three more people to clean up the mess.”

As we prepared for the annual Ogg Family Christmast Eve gathering (that includes many of the Colonna Family, and much of the Willems Family,) I realized that my continued love of food comes from the culinary delights that many of them have been able to present me.  So, in honor of their contributions to my love of food, I am writing my Christmas List now.  (Please understand that I realize that to receive all of these wonderful meals on one day would be a bit difficult, and impossible to enjoy. So, Santa, one a day, or two, would be fine.)

Culinary Excellence is to be recognized...

  • Kim's Shoulder Roast with a wonderful thyme rub, and Yorkshire Pudding

  • Eleyna's Coffee (for some reason, I cannot make my own coffee well enough to be willing to drink it)

  • Doug's Spaghetti (the hours he spends making his sauce are obvious in the depth of flavor in his sauce)

  • David's Pizza.  (Doug and Dave's cooking abilities are worthy of their own journal entry, perhaps soon.)

  • Maryann's Lasagna (Guess what we are having tonight???)

  • Mom's Marinated Flank Steak with a cold Curry Chicken Salad

  • Dad's Grilled Salmon with a Buttery Lemon & Dill sauce (as long as he allows me to drop a whole stick of butter in it)

  • Ellen's Chilean Sea Bass (I have only had it once, but the experience was worth the memories...)

  • Creme Brulee. From anywhere...almost.

  • Maryann's Pecan Pie. (hint, hint, hint)

  • Mint Chocolate Ice Cream (and Peppermint)

  • McDonald's Shamrock Shake (they actually don't offer this any more...)

  • Sonic's Peppermint Blizzard and Cherry Limeade

  • Golden Wok's Roast Duck

  • Pei Wei's Beef Chili Ramen

  • Houlihan's Stuffed Fried Mushrooms

  • Shiner Bock's Holiday Cheer beer

  • Sam Adam's Holiday Variety pack

  • Fleming's Filet Mignon (or Morton's)

I am sure that I have inadvertantly forgotten someone's delicious offerings, and for that I apologize. If you have a favorite recipe that you would like to share, by all means, feel free to let me know and I will be more than happy to give it a whirl here.

Until next time, Merry Christmas to all, and Good Eating, Friends.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cooking According to Colin, Part 1

Tomato Basil Soup* from La Madeleine. Sounds like it should be good, right?  Hot, steaming soup, with sourdough bread to dip in it...

Why did I allow myself to build it up, only to be let down?  The soup was on the tart side, and creamy it was not. It seemed to lack substance, as if it was the soup skimmed off the top of a huge vat, with all the wholesome goodness still sitting at the bottom.  I kept stirring my soup in my bowl trying to find the hidden treasure of bold flavor that for some reason never showed up.

THIS is why I believe I specialize in Chinese food.  It is a taste that I understand, and a taste that I can easily replicate.  Understanding and loving the food gives me a glimpse into the nation's (and my) heritage and culture. The many different kinds of cuisine include Szechuan, Shandong, Guangdong and Hunan cuisine, which then morp into 8 styles, and more afterwards. The beauty of learning about cooking in this style is that Chinese cuisine is changing.

The Primary Influences to Chinese Cooking and Flavors

Because the mainland is so large, and there are so many different climactic variances in the country, there are marked differences in techniques and ingredients, due primarily to the availability of core ingredients, between the main cooking styles.

Little by little we will open up the world of Canton style cuisine, with the freshness of its ingredients and the subtle but dinstinct contrast of flavors and textures, Szechuan style cuisine, with its fiery reputation, Hunan style cuisine, a detailed and extravagant form of cooking, Shanghai style cuisine, which offers a diverse yet refined taste profile, and, of course, of the delicate Mandarin style cuisine, where presentation is key, knowing we are catching only a glimpse into a very sophisticated world of food preparation.

Let the Globe-Trotting begin.

The Art of Dining, Chinese style

Chinese dining traditions date back thousands of years and in some of the more traditional Chinese households, many of the customs are still held to a high standard. Such customs are a blend of practicality, superstition and social inertia. The naivete of those unschooled in the Chinese customs is almost to be expected, but the willingness to learn then follow them will make for an enjoyable new experience and bring pleasure to a gracious host.

Chinese dining etiquette begins at the table and specifies in what order diners are seated. Customs even dictate when diners eat or drink and how and go as far as who leaves, and in what order. Despite the social disciplines that accompany the traditions, a Chinese meal allows for fully partaking of the benefits of the excellent food and enjoying the companionship of your fellow diners.

At many Chinese meals there is a guest of honor, whether it be a wedding couple, an anniversary couple, or a couple of centenarians. Even when the occasion is of a somber sort, and far from any sort of official function or special celebration, one diner may still be the focus of the gathering. The honoree is seated at the head of the table, across from the host.

Even if the event doesn't call for an honored guest, there is still a social hierarchy that is recognized and followed. The most respected diner, often the father or the eldest male, is seated first. As he plays host to others he will serve guests, which is not considered a servile role.

The host eats or drinks first, but he will pay careful attention to his guests' comfort and pleasure. He'll ensure that their tea cup is filled and their palette satisfied. A good guest in turn will sample each dish offered and show open appreciation for the fine dishes prepared.

After the host serves the dishes from a central plate, the guests are expected to thank him for it.

When at a table where there is no head a good diner will serve another before himself. Dishes containing food are placed in the center of the table so that each option is available to all. The dishes are left there and food moved to a diner's plate. It is impolite to move a serving dish to one's one plate and shovel food onto it, then replace the dish. Unlike Western culture, however, it is not considered impolite to reach across another diner to get to the serving dish.

A cardinal sin in dining in the midst of the Chinese culture is applying any other seasoning or flavor to the main food dish at the center of the table.  A host may, in a self-deprecating way, criticize the flavor, or lack thereof in a particular dish, usually the feature dish.  At this point, all the fellow diners are expected to chime in with reassurances that the food tastes excellent, and that it needs no enhancement.  (Should you feel that a dish may be slightly bland, additional seasonings can be added ON YOUR OWN PLATE.)

This brings to mind an occasion when I was at my Mom's house with a new girlfriend who I wanted to introduce to the family.  My mother, being the perfect host that she is, cooked an extravagant meal, featuring many of her favorite dishes in honor of the introduction.  Upon presentation of the last dish, she said that she did not believe that the Shrimp dish did not have enough seasoning.  My girlfriend in an attempt to reassure her, said "Oh, that's okay, I am sure it just needs a little soy sauce" and, to the horror of all of us at the table proceeded to take the nearest bottle of soy sauce and DROWNED the dish in it.  Needless to say, she was never invited back.

Guests will please their host if they have a second helping, though the final result should leave some food on the plate. A host may be saddened if the guest cleans the plate bare, since this is a sign that not enough food was provided. Likewise, it is inappropriate to take the last of any food from the center.

Using chopsticks is becoming more and more optional, but in a traditional Chinese meal it is a strict necessity. Diners unfamiliar or unpracticed with Chinese chopsticks -which differ slightly from their Japanese cousins- can quickly come up to speed. A knowledge of the proper technique and a little practice will soon make them proficient. (Remember never to place them upright into a bowl of rice, since this resembles incense sticks burned after a dear one has departed this life.)

Participation in the wonderful tradition of following dining customs won't bring calm to the chaos that preceded your sitting at the table, and not understanding them, or failure to fully follow them will not cause a social rift. But an attention to traditional mores can lead to a pleasantly different experience and bring a smile to a grateful host.

Working for Your Food - otherwise known as
Mastering the Art of Chopsticks

As anyone who has been to a Chinese restaurant knows, chopsticks are the traditional implements for eating Chinese dishes. But far from being difficult and inefficient, they're actually very versatile. They require a moderate amount of technique and practice, but in short order anyone can learn to use them well.

Chopsticks have been in use for over 3,000 years. They receive a mention in The Book of Rites dating from the Shang Dynasty that ruled China from 1600BC – 1100BC. In that time they've been made of ivory, bronze, bamboo and many other materials. Decorative designs may employ gold, silver, ceramic enamel or lacquer and other compounds. The Kuaizi Museum in Shanghai has collected over 1,000 pair, many of them centuries old.

Chinese chopsticks are usually about 8-10 inches long and often thickened or blunt at the ends. Both sticks are the same. Japanese chopsticks, by contrast, have narrowed ends, more pointed than their Chinese cousins.

To use Chinese chopsticks, place them both into one hand. Clamp them between the index finger and thumb, then move one to between the index and middle finger. The ends should be at the same point and both should lie in the same plane. In using Japanese chopsticks one stick protrudes slightly out from the other and they may be slightly twisted.

The trick is to have both a firm grip on each while being able to swivel one into the other in a pincer-like movement. That motion is performed by moving the index finger and thumb just slightly, opening and closing the pincer. You should be able to tap one end into the other and make an audible sound without losing grip on either.  Do not allow your chopsticks to cross or become an X either in front of or behind your fingers.  Some restaurants offer "Kid's Chopsticks" which are little more than a piece of plastic that functions as hinge into which users can clip their chopsticks and not worry about them falling.

Chinese dishes are prepared with the knowledge of the eating tools in mind. Instead of whole steaks, or whole legs or breast of chicken, meat is made bite-sized. Dumplings and dim sum are made so that they can easily be grasped between the chopsticks. The weight and size make it simple to hold them without opening the pincer too wide or falling out too easily. Rice can be scooped into the mouth by bringing the bowl up to the lips. Slurping soup is not considered rude in Chinese dining, in fact, it is considered a compliment  A satisfied belch at the end of the meal, (something that my daughters have perfected,) is considered the ultimate compliment.

Despite the name, no stabbing or chopping is required or expected. In fact, in Chinese dining etiquette, such actions would be considered socially unferior and uneducated. There are several other traditional customs in the proper use of chopsticks, as well.

Sticking chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice is considered poor taste. They resemble the incense sticks that are placed in rememberance of the dead. Unlike some Western circumstances, the Chinese don't generally mix meals with mourning. In Chinese culture, eating even an ordinary meal is a celebration. Instead, rest them on the side of the bowl or plate.

Waving chopsticks in front of someone else's face or at other diners, or playing with them in the mannerism of swordplay is of equally poor taste. One should not suck on the tips or lick the length of the chopstick. They are not meant to be used to pull a food dish toward one. Chopsticks may be provided in or with a central dish to scoop food onto one's plate. Use them instead of your own.

While Chopsticks may present a challenge to the unexperienced diner, the art and perfection of eating with them will help many diners gain an added appreciation for the work that went behind the preparation of the meal.

Until then, Good Eating, Friends...

Tomato Basil Soup a la Colin


4 cups fresh tomatoes, cored, and chopped (8-10)

4 cups vegetable stock (chicken stock can be used as well)

12-14 basil leaves, washed fresh (dried basil can be used if allowed to soak in the vegetable stock for about an hour)

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 lb sweet unsalted butter


1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper


  • Combine tomatoes, seasoning and stock in saucepan.

  • Simmer 30 minutes.

  • Puree contents together with basil

  • Return to stove and combine with heavy cream and butter, stirring until hot.

  • Garnish with grated parmesan cheese and chopped basil

  • Serve hot with your favorite bread

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Journey to the Orient

It started with the typical "Where do you want to go eat?" and ended with "ehh... It wasn't bad." The lukewarm response came from the simple fact that while 2 of us liked the food, the other 2 did not. 

Served to us, from a Chinese kitchen here in San Antonio was:

  • Chicken & Broccoli, with mushrooms added

  • Kid's Lemon Chicken, sauce on the side

  • Combination Fried Rice

  • Pepper Steak with Steamed Rice (made spicy)

  • Egg rolls & Egg Drop soup and 1 serving of Hot & Sour Soup.
Sadly, the egg rolls were cold and soggy.  NEVER a good combination. The soup offerings were okay, with the Hot & Sour soup having the perfect blend of spice and vinegar.  Because our younger daughter did not like the Egg Drop soup (she can down a whole 12 ounce serving in one sitting if she REALLY likes it) that soup gets low marks.  It was a little too thick, with the cornstarch having been over portioned, and it was not very clear, meaning that the cornstarch was not cooked INTO the soup, it was simply added to it then mixed. 

My Pepper Steak was good.  There was plenty of sauce, and the vegetables were not overcooked.  I might consider it slightly over-salted though.

The Chicken & Broccoli was not what Dave had wanted.  He had actually wanted something closer to their Kung Pao Chicken, without all of the other "stuff" but with Broccoli and Mushrooms, and got talked out of ordering it that way.  Satisfied? Yes.  Happy?  Not so much.

The Lemon Chicken was a generous portion, with the breast butterflied and battered, then flash fried and grilled.  The batter was a bit greasy, but it did not detract from the overall taste of the dish.  The sauce, thankfully, was on the side, allowing Maryann to control just how much she wanted.

My older daughter LOVED the fried rice, and in fact, was unwilling to declare a favorite between theirs and mine.  To me, it looked bland, colorless and was overly salty.  But to each, their own.

The greatest irony for me was the fact that it is a kind Vietnamese gentleman who owns the restaurant.  His attempt at Chinese cuisine was to be commended, and those who do not know the real thing clearly love it, as I could see a steady flow of traffic.  People were ordering the food for take-out and the dining room was half full.  Not bad for a Monday night.

In truth, I know I should have tried all of the dishes to get a first person perspective on the taste.  I simply wasn't convinced that I could be objective.  That is going to be the first true lesson regarding my ability to be successful in documenting my travels and cooking exploits. 

I already know that I LOVE Martin Yan's cooking.  I already know that I LOVE my own cooking.  Now, I have to be able to see if I can ever bring myself to love someone else's.

The odds are in your favor, as the reader, that you will come out of the final reading experience having gained a new perspective into the world inside your kitchen.  There is truly a special element in that one room in any house or restaurant that brings life to a family or gathering.  It has taken me a lifetime (yeah, right) to realize that there is that world that can be revealed in these pages.  The difference between this journal and those of the pros is that they are Cooks Writing, not a Writer who is Cooking.  That is the one thing that I hope to be able to bring out.  You CAN cook, too.  It is created by a Cook.

What will become clear as this journey and journal continues its trek is that some of the styles and expressions and cooking demystification are not for the beginner, but if the basic instructions are followed, even a beginner can duplicate the most savory of recipes, the most complex of procedures, and the most delicious of dishes.  You don't have to be an experienced cook to appreciate this post.  In fact, I TRULY HOPE you are not an expert.  However, a novice cook may not be able to truly appreciate the value of the expose.  I will be continuing to fill the pages with techniques, strategies and original (and hopefully creative) ideas that come from the minds of  fellow cooks and collaborators, those of you who create the best on the face of the earth.

I really thought that cooking was tough.  Early on, there were so many different things that I saw others do that I simply could not replicate.  That was before I decided to start documenting my experiences.  If there was a book on writing a book, I wish I had read it before launching this campaign.

As I continued to collaborate with fellow cooks, and professional restauranteurs, I had to stop and ask them if they had any reservations about revelations into their "trade secrets" and if so, then I would immediately put a halt on whatever section I was working on to re-focus the research.

Each entry is done individually and almost always will be completely separate from the rest.  As a result, many elements and steps may be repeated in different postings.  I am, however, most willing to divulge, release, and give my thoughts on recipes or cuisines from other parts of the world by request.  If you are a novice cook, or if you are someone who simply wants the mystery taken out of Asian cuisine and many others, then I hope you derive the most benefit from this journey.  I hope that you will be able to apply the techniques and lessons into your everyday cooking, even if you only put a little effort into it.  I also hope that it is not too sophisticated for you.

No one person will be able to master every cooking technique available.  I would never hope to master them all, but I would LOVE to learn more to be able to bring more to the table.  An open mind at the chopping block, and while selecting vegetables and meats for the next meal will make experiences like the one I had last night more objective.  Because Chinese cuisine is as varied as the country, there are Imperial dishes and local cuisines, ethnic minority's dishes -such as Mongolian dishes, Tibetan dishes, Manchu dishes, or Zhan dishes- and vegetarian dishes, even dishes with strong religious flavor, such as those from an Islamic background that can  be brought to the limelight.  That is where we are going as we enter the next phase of this journey together.

Until Tomorrow... Good Eating, Friends.

Lung Fung Chinese on Urbanspoon

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Leftovers? What leftovers???

It was a fun weekend for me on the culinary standpoint, as I was virtually inundated with fodder for today's entry.  I was exposed, mostly voluntarily, to the widest variety of cuisines possible today, both in a dining standpoint and from a televised perspective.  It was AWESOME!!!  The question was: "What would POSSIBLY be interesting enough to captivate an audience, and how in the WORLD would I pen all of it?"

So here goes...

It started late Friday evening, on a cold almost-winter's night.  Horns were blaring in the streets and music was bumping and thumping from the... oh, good grief... this is starting off like a bad novel..

We were at my wife's company Christmas Party and the dinner was.. umm... good? I think?  There was a veritable buffet of Mexican Food, and I started on the wrong side of the line.  (Actually, I think they had set the line up the wrong way.)  In the first chafing dish was the ubiquitous Tex-Mex starch option - Rice & Beans. Really.  Moving along, I encountered picadillo*, shredded chicken, fajita chicken and steak, and plenty of flour tortillas.  It was the true trifecta of starch, starch, starch.  Better to load up once than have to stand in line a second time.  So.  Tacos and $7.00 margaritas in a 6 ounce cup? Awesome.

Needless to say, we left there just a little unsatisfied, wondering if we were going to have to run into a 24 hour joint to get some true sustenance, or hold out until the morning. 

Turns out we decided to wait. But boy, was it worth the wait.

Somehow, in our travels on Saturday, we ended up at Golden Wok.  Yum.  Had a craving and ordered enough to satisfy the craving, fully anticipating that we would have, as always, leftovers to take home for the next night's meal.  I ordered off of the Dim Sum menu.  My old standard.  Har Gou, Shrimp Siu Mai, and Beef Spare ribs.  Kim ordered the Shrimp and Broccoli and pan-fried chicken Potstickers, and my younger daughter ordered a bowl of their Egg Drop Soup.  As the food started arriving, I realized that we might be in some trouble.  Not because of the quantity, but because of the flavor profiles that we would be encountering.

One of the cardinal sins in the dining world is to work backwards in taste.  One should NEVER serve the tastiest, most seasoned dish first, or else your subsequent course or menu item will not satisfy you.  (Hence the whole "serving the palette cleansing sorbet thing" in fancier restaurants.)

Thankfully, either because the servers and chefs knew of this rule, or through blind luck, our food was served in the proper order.  (I am guessing the former, because our food was never brought out by the same person.)  The chicken potstickers were tasty, and crispy, which is how they MUST be served, or else the skin will stick to your teeth. yuck...  The dipping sauce added a spicy and tangy dimension to what would otherwise have been bland, because right after we got the potstickers, the Har Gou showed up.  Shrimp, wrapped in rice paper, much more flavorful than the potstickers.  Then came the Siu Mai, the Beef Spareribs and the Shrimp and Broccoli.

The look on my wife's face when the spareribs showed up was classic.  (What the heck is THAT?  How come it doesn't look like what is in the picture?!?!?)  But, to give her credit, she did try it, but didn't like it.  The black bean sauce that the spareribs were cooked in was quite tasty.  But it is an acquired taste.

Leftovers? What leftovers? There may have been half a portion of the Shrimp and Broccoli left after all was said and done, and even our younger daughter was stuffed.  Such a good thing...

I knew it was going to be tough to follow that act the rest of the weekend, so I didn't try. Really. Why set myself up for failure?

Grilled Cheese sandwiches the rest of the way.  (With pancetta and salami, a heart attack lover's delight!)

On Sunday, between football games, I managed to watch Cake Boss, Cooking with Gordon Ramsay Live and Iron Chef America - A match up special featuring Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentis versus Mario Batali and Rachel Ray.  It was fun watching the match-up, because Rachel Ray, who drives me nuts yet has some easy to cook recipes for quick food on the go, seemed truly out of her element, out of her comfort zone.  The mystery ingredient was...wait for it... Cranberries!!  I saw some true inspiration in the dishes that were presented, as well as variations on an old favorite, and I saw some safety.  Ideas to cook by? Absolutely!!

The most engaging show of the day, however, was definitely Gordon Ramsey's Cookalong Live, featuring a curse-free Gordon Ramsay, with celebrity accompaniment of Leann Rimes, Cedric the Entertainer, and Alyson Hannigan.  I would have LOVED to have been a part of the studio audience, but only if I would have been able to partake of the dining experience and taste his food.  Gordon Ramsey did a good job of, in his frenetic, almost frantic pace, guiding many different families and the celebrities through the basic steps of cooking fun and flavorful dishes as part of a 3 course meal.  On the menu: a shrimp-and-pasta appetizer, steak Diane served with sauteed potatoes and peas as the main course, and a quick tiramisu for dessert.  The most fun element of the show for me was watching just how FAST the man can cook.  Pure economy of motion, no wasted movements, no unnecessary flair.  (Although the FLAMBE action with the sauce for the steak Diane was cool.  Don't know how I am going to do that without a lighter, as I have to cook with *sob* electricity...)  It makes perfect sense to me why the numbnuts on Hell's Kitchen stand such a little chance of succeeding.  If you can't cook a meal for 4 in an hour, on a Tuesday night, then you sure as heck won't survive in HIS kitchen. 

I was wondering, however, how in the world anyone would be able to stop and eat, if all of that food was to be cooked in an hour.  I am going to have to give that whole meal a spin. 

(Honey, you remember what we need to add to the shopping list for next week, right? Oh, crap, okay... call me and I will tell you.)

*My recipe for a delicious picadillo, as done at Chino's Cafe:


2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
7 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped green bell pepper
3 pounds lean ground beef
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 dried bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce (Cholula is my favorite)
6 cups canned stewed tomatoes, half-drained

In a large stock pot, heat 1 tablespoon of  oil over medium heat. Saute garlic, onion and green pepper until onions are transparent. Transfer onion mixture to a bowl and set aside. In the same pot, heat the remaining oil and brown the ground beef.

In a separate saucepan, combine vinegar, salt, pepper,  bay leaves and hot sauce. Let simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes.

Place the seasoning mixture and the onion mixture into the pot with the ground beef. Add the half drained tomatoes and cook for 1 hour over medium heat; stirring occasionally.

Yum... Good Eating, Friends...

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Playing with Fire... (or at least WOKKING on it...)

WHOOSH!!! There is nothing more satisfying to me hearing the visceral roar of 90,000 btu's of gas powered flame leaping into the air and hitting the base of my carbon steel wok.  Or the sound of the sizzle that springs from the wok as I put the ingredients for the night's meal into the smoking (just barely) hot oil. Or the sound of forks (and chopsticks) hitting the plate, and mad slurping, munching, and chewing of crispy stir fried vegetables.  Or the satisfied belch that springs from my youngest daughter as she leans back in her chair after practically licking her plate clean.

Does anyone out there have a favorite restaurant in mind that utilizes open flame wok cooking?  For me, Golden Wok, Fire Wok, Fire Bowl Cafe and Pei Wei have the best and most consistent technique (although none of them could touch Chino's Cafe...)  My listing them, by the way, is by no means an advertiesment for these companies. 

For me, wok cooking is definitely my style of choice.  I have struggled (and failed) to cook a decent tasting stir fry dish, or good fried rice with a skillet, or even a float bottomed wok, and sadly, they never seem to come close to what the imagined final result is supposed to be.  The science behind it is basic, but the skill behind it is intricate.

Woks are the most versatile cooking implement out there.  I use woks most often for stir frying, but they can also be used many other ways, such as in steaming, deep frying, braising, stewing, smoking, or making soup. I use with my wok, a long handled chahn (spatula) or hoak (ladle). The long extensions of these utensils allowsme to work with the food without burning myself.

Classic woks are clearly identified by their distinctive shape - a wide mouth with a well rounded bottom.  (Remind you of anyone?)  There are some made and sold with a flat bottom, specifically for those who do not have gas stoves, or want to use them more in the frying capacity.  My favorite one is a carbon steel wok, 18" in diameter with a metal handle.  The one I use the most, however, is 14" wide, with a wooden handle.  I have learned through experience that this particular wok does not work well when trying to cook for the masses, as the wooden handle does not have the tensile strength to withstand as much action as a wok can be put through with nearly 2 pounds of food in it.  My wooden handled wok also presents a disadvantage as it has an additional handle (I guess for lifting) on the opposite side of the bowl.  This darned handle causes food to hit it and fly tangentally away from the rest of the portion, which adds to the mess that I create when cooking.

I am also challenged by conditions which we have no control over - I don't have a gas stove that belches fire at a rate that I need it to in order to best cook Chinese food - I have an electric range.  (I can already hear the gasps of horror, as many of you know that I am a HUGE proponent of gas cooking.)  Electric ranges simply do not provide enough heat at a fast enough rate to heat the sides of the wok, thus reducing the usable surface area with which to cook.

Successful wok cooks (like me, after 4 years of working on the mechanics) can turn and mix food with a flipping motion that tosses the food into the air over the wok.  This style of cooking means that the term "Stir Fry" is a bit of a misnomer, as the flipping of the food, while cool to watch, actually takes to food away from the hot 450 degree surface. 

Does "Flip Fry" sound good to you? Brings to mind much potential for a burger joint for the horizontally gifted crowd...

Teflon?  Who the heck uses teflon? You sure can't with Asian stir fry, as teflon scratches easily, and your complementary cooking utensils are metal ladles or spatulas... What were you thinking?!?!?

Basic Stir-Frying Tips (Best Practice)

Always start with a hot wok.  Hot.  Really.  Then add a small amount (1-3 tablespoons) of peanut oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, or canola oil. (Fresh chopped garlic and ginger can be added to the oil to flavor it, but must be quickly scooped out before burning or turning brown.) Add the first ingredient, usually sliced meat, and stir in the very hot oil until hot, then push it up the side to slow the amount of heat on the meat or cooking items. The meat may be returned to the oil and then flipped and pushed to the sides several times until the cooking is done. A well made wok will have ridged or dimpled edges to prevent the food items from sliding back down into the center of the wok.
Once cooked, scoop out the meat with a Chinese strainer (or any, really,) to a side plate then cook the next ingredient, usually vegetables, in the same manner. Strain out any excess cooking oil, and combine all your ingrediens, with sauces, seasonings, liquids, and corn starch slurry for thickening.  Continue stirring until your food has a nice glaze to it.   If done effectively, many portions can be cooked in a short period of time.
I usually try not to cook more than one serving, 2 at most, otherwise not all of the ingredients cook evenly or get hot enough.  I will also, when cooking for an army, as I am usually wont to do, pre-cook a lot of the meat, then cook the individual portions after having prepped all of the other ingredients.
Use extreme caution, when wok cooking over gas, to not allow water or juices to splatter over the sides of the wok when adding your ingredients.  This splatter could cause the hot oil to ignite and burn, which then could result in a charred, burnt oil taste. 

The visual effects are cool, but only if not actually cooking for someone.   I still enjoy going to Chinese restaurants that cook on display (interactive dining at its best) to watch the cooks do their thing.  Many Chinese restaurants have an open cooking line to enable their guests to see what is actually going on.  (Such transparency has become a staple of the dining experience now, as many restaurants battle to gain trust among people who have less and less disposable income to spend on dining out.)  I had actually dreamed of opening a restaurant on the Riverwalk here in San Antonio that had a glass frontage along the walkway for people to stand and watch the pyrotechnics, with master chefs hard at work.  Sadly, though, I have not yet won the lottery, so such dreams will have to be put on hold.

Until then, Good Eating...

Golden Wok Chinese on Urbanspoon
Fire Bowl Cafe on Urbanspoon
Fire Wok on Urbanspoon
Pei Wei Asian Diner on Urbanspoon
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