April 3, 2012
Island Cooking: Lighter ingredients and preparations for spring

By LYNNE FOSTER


Since Easter is upon us, we need to think about what to do with all those hard-boiled eggs.  As beautiful as they are, you really do need to crack their colorful shells and eat the eggs while they are fresh.

Why not prolong the visual pleasure by pickling them?  They will have a distinctive flavor and a rich rosy hue.  

It is so easy.  Peel the eggs and place them whole in a large bowl.  Add a few drops of white vinegar to the contents of several jars of pickled beets, about 1/4 cup per jar.  Carefully pour the mixture into the bowl of eggs, being careful not to splash.  Be sure the eggs are covered by the juice, cover the bowl, refrigerate, and then walk away.

Leave them for two days.  The longer they sit the deeper their color will be. 

In addition to Easter, a major ritual of spring is the diet.  As we strip away the heavy layers of woolen socks and knitted caps and everything in between, it becomes painfully and undeniably apparent that we are not yet ready for swimsuits.

There are numerous diet books that attempt to alter our eating habits, but that usually only lasts a little while.  Most of us lose the weight -- or not -- then go back to the foods we have been craving.  Need I say more?

Why not make a few substitutions of both ingredients and cooking methods? 

A wok is an inexpensive tool.  Don’t get talked into a pricey heavyweight wok.  Use what the Asians have used for centuries and still do.  The light steel pans allow the wok to get very hot very quickly and high heat is your goal.

They come with the more traditional rounded bottom or the newer flat bottom version designed for cooking on a stove top.  If yours is rounded, you should purchase an inexpensive ring for the burner that the wok nestles into.  It gives greater stability to the wok and that is important since you are vigorously stirring while the food cooks.

When you get a new wok, you will have to season it, but that is no big deal. 

First wash it well in hot soapy water to remove the coating that has been applied for shipping.  Dry it completely and place it on the stove.  Now you are ready to “burn” it, as the Chinese say.

Put the heat on high and get the wok good and hot.  Pour 2 to 3 tablespoons of canola oil into the wok and very carefully coat the entire surface (inside surface, of course!).  When the oil is very hot, add some spring onions or chives and toss them around the wok with a spatula until they get brown and crispy.  For some reason the use of pungent vegetables aids the seasoning, or so I have been told.

You will notice the metal changing color.  When you have finished “burning” the wok, remove the veggies and clean the wok by running hot water over it.  There are inexpensive bamboo brushes that are effective, but you can use another scrubbing implement to remove any leftover bits of food.  Do not use one that is infused with a cleaning agent.

Seriously, do not clean with soap.  It goes against our grain, I know, but remember we don’t lather up the old iron skillet either.

Dry it by heating on the stove again.  You can apply a light coating of cooking oil to preserve it.

And now for some light recipes for spring that you can cook in the wok.

I had a pineapple that was ripe and some yellowfin tuna that didn’t get the message that it was here in our offshore waters early, so I cut them up for a stir fry.


TUNA STIR FRY

2 fresh tuna steaks cut into bite size chunks
1/2 fresh pineapple also cut into chunks
1/2 each of red, yellow and green bell peppers, sliced
1/2 small red onion, sliced
1 handful of sugar snap peas, halved
1 carrot, sliced thin lengthwise with a vegetable peeler
2 cloves of garlic, chopped fine.
2 tablespoon canola oil
Soy sauce, about 1 tablespoon
Roasted sesame oil, about 1 teaspoon
Sweet Asian vinegar or Mirin, about 1 teaspoon
Plum sauce, about 1 teaspoon
1/2 bag of Chinese noodles


Boil the noodles in water according to the package directions.  Don’t overdo them or they will be soggy.  Rinse under cold water and hold.

Get the oil very hot and add the vegetables, continually stirring them around the wok -- hence the name stir fry.

When they begin to soften, a matter of minutes over the high heat, toss in the garlic, the pineapple and the seasoning liquids.  Give them a minute to warm up and then add the tuna and the cooked noodles.

Continue stir frying for only another minute or two.  Taste test the firmness of the ingredients and the depth of the seasonings.  Adjust as necessary by heating a little longer or adding more flavorings.

This is a basic recipe so feel free to change any and all ingredients.  While the wok is a traditional cooking pan used throughout Asia you don’t have to limit yourself to Asian food.  What is important is the method - very high heat, very quick cooking, very little fat.

You can use rice but if you do, don’t add it to the wok.  Cook and serve separately.

A newer tradition in the East is the widespread use of an electric rice cooker. 

Quite a few years ago when I was preparing for a move to Karachi, I attended a company-sponsored week long introduction into the ways of the mysterious East.  Included was a cooking lesson, and it was there that I learned that “everybody” in Asia uses this time-saver.

I resisted getting one for many years because I was being stubborn about using time-honored authentic utensils and cookware.

Well, I don’t make the best rice in the world, never getting the texture right.  As a consequence, we didn’t eat much rice and my husband prefers it to other starches, so I recently broke down and did what the Asians all do.

I bought an electric rice cooker. 

What a wonderful appliance!

Now, not only do we eat rice more often, I am no longer leery of serving it to guests and, not only that, I can also cook quinoa in it.

Quinoa is an ancient grain grown high in the South American Andes Mountains.  It has been cultivated for nearly 5,000 years and was respectfully called the “Mother Grain” by the ancient Incas.

Not technically a grain, the quinoa is actually a small seed of an herb plant, one that is extremely high in protein, calcium, and iron.  It pairs beautifully with legumes and adds extra nourishment to salads.  Its nutty flavor is a good vehicle, like rice or pasta, for dressings and sauces, so use it with that in mind.

I recently served it flavored with lemon and thyme as a side dish to fish and it was a wonderful accompaniment.

With a nice lean pork chop, I added quinoa to the salad and had a complete meal without adding more starch and more calories.


PORK CHOPS

Canola oil to coat bottom of skillet
4 Pork chops, excess fat trimmed off before cooking
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly
1/2 red bell pepper, sliced thinly
1/2 box of small portabello mushrooms
Kosher salt
Black pepper, urfa, or maresh, if you have them.  They add a depth you don’t get    with regular black pepper.
Dried oregano, about 1 teaspoon
Red wine, about 1 cup
Fat free Feta cheese, about 1 cup

Gently wipe the mushrooms clean using a slightly damp paper towel.  Remove the stems and reserve for later use in long-cooking soups or stews.  Slice the cap into thirds.

Season the pork chops well with salt and pepper.

Add a small amount of canola oil to a skillet.  You could do this in a wok. If you do, then chunk the meat and vegetables. 

When the oil is hot add the pork chops and quickly brown on all sides.

I use a stainless steel braiser, so I can them put it in the oven and save the extra step of transferring to another pan.  You also have the flavorful oil already warm.

Add the feta, onion, red pepper and mushroom slices, the oregano and about 1 cup of red wine.  Gently mix and place in a 350˚F oven for about 1 hour. 

While it is cooking, prepare the salad.

Toss the salad in vinaigrette, adding cooked quinoa and chick peas (garbanzo beans) to your raw vegetables.

For 1 cup quinoa: Prepare the quinoa according to the package directions,  One cup makes quite a lot of quinoa, but if you are using the rice cooker you really can’t cook less.  You can use it in another dish.

1 cup chick peas: Soak the beans in water overnight.  Drain, rinse, and cook in fresh water over high heat until the water boils.  Cover and simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally and testing for softness before taking off the heat.



CLASSIC VINAIGRETTE

3 1/2 tablespoons cold pressed virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons wine or sherry vinegar
1 shallot, peeled and finely minced
Dijon mustard
Sea salt
Black pepper

Pour the vinegar into your salad bowl and add the minced shallots and the salt.  Stir and let sit a few minutes.  Add the mustard and the olive oil and whisk together until the dressing becomes slightly thicker and well blended.  Taste and adjust as needed.  If it is too tart for you, add more oil or vice versa.

Add vegetables, chick peas, and quinoa and toss.

There you are – flavor-filled dinners that are also good for you.  You have my permission to feel smug about it!


(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront.  Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)


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