Friday, July 14, 2017

Grilled Leg of Lamb Kebabs

Bonne fête, folks, we've made it to another Bastille Day. I struggled a little with what to make for this dearest of No Free Lunch traditions, and ended up settling on a recipe that's been overdue on the blog - a Julia Child-inspired leg of lamb. I've been making this with some regularity for the last two years, and it even made a pictorial appearance in the 2016 birthday special. I believe Child's original recipe is for a whole butterflied leg of lamb (for which this marinade would do nicely), but I generally make it into kebabs. Although kebabs might be stretching the theme a touch, let me remind you that less than 12 years after the storming of the Bastille, Egyptian Mamluks were recruited into the French army, and would eventually become part of Napoleon's Imperial Guard cavalry. I'm calling it close enough.

I must make an admission here in the ingredients section. The lemon juice completely slipped my mind when making the marinade today. If you do happen to be lacking lemon juice, I can report the lamb is still excellent. However, I normally include it, and it does add a nice element. This was also a great opportunity to use some fresh rosemary we've been growing on the deck, and while dried will do the job, it doesn't quite compare with the fragrance of fresh. Finally, let's talk about soy sauce. If there's anything food-related I could possibly claim to know more about than Julia Child, it might just be Chinese fermented bean products. For the uninitiated, Chinese soy sauce comes in two varieties: dark and light. Dark soy sauce is, as the name suggests, very dark, a little viscous, and will dye anything it comes in contact with a lovely dark brown, including your shirt. It's great for marinades and stews, but a little goes a long way. Light soy sauce is the "default" Chinese soy sauce and is typically used for saucing stir fried dishes, where a more delicate touch is required. I often mix the two, as I've done here.

  • 2 lb. boneless leg of lamb
  • 4 Tbs. olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, grated or minced
  • 3 Tbs. Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
  • 1 Tbs. light soy sauce
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary (about 1 tsp.), chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 3 Tbs lemon juice
  • 1 large onion


For kebabs, cut the lamb into small chunks, about 1 to 1 1/2 inch square. Trim fat as needed, as the large chunks of fat can be tough. Transfer the pieces to a gallon bag.

Combine the olive oil, garlic, mustard, soy sauce, rosemary, oregano, and lemon juice. Mix well into a loose paste and pour over the lamb. Mix thoroughly to coat the meat. Transfer to refrigerator and marinate for a few hours.

Cut the onion into small pieces, about an inch square. Toss with a little olive oil. Thread the lamb on skewers, alternating with onion pieces. This will make about 4 skewers.

Grill on high flame until well browned on all sides and cooked to preferred temperature. Turn frequently for even browning. I generally keep the hood open on a gas grill to avoid overcooking.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Minced "Pigeon" in Lettuce Cups (生菜鴿鬆)

This is one post I'm very excited about. I have flipped past this recipe many times while looking through Pei Mei's books, and had not given much thought until recently. It's called "Minced Pigeon," after all. After trying some excellent versions of it in the Bay Area recently, I decided to give it a go, and I'm so glad I did. I'd venture to say this is almost a perfect dish. It really has it all: three meats, four vegetables, mushrooms, and noodles, all wrapped up in crunchy lettuce leaves. It comes together terrifically, and this is one I'll certainly be making again.

Pei Mei's recipes are almost universally simple. They all fit on one page, with a maximum of about four steps. That being said, this one has a lot going on. As usual, I made some adjustments to the recipe. The main change is replacing the pigeon with chicken thighs (this substitution is in the original recipe). Another big one was reducing the amount of noodles by about half. She recommends using water chestnuts, with bamboo shoots as a substitute, but I went for a mix of both. The Chinese name, shengcai ge song, translates to "lettuce pigeon mince." For the last character, I had to consult dad and grandpa, but overall this was another straightforward translation.

The new exotic ingredients in this recipe are the thin rice noodles. These are often called "rice sticks." There seems to be some variance in the width of the noodles, and I went with the thinnest ones I could get. I haven't tried them in anything else, but my guess is they would work pretty well in soup or pan fried. It's worth mentioning the chicken liver as well, since I've only used them once before. I bought a tub of them, and only used 4. The rest become a fantastic pâté using Jacques Pepin's recipe.

  • 3 oz. (approx.) thin rice noodles
  • 1 lb. boneless chicken meat
  • 3/4 lb. boneless pork shoulder
  • 4 chicken livers
  • 1 onion (about 1 1/2 cup diced)
  • 8 dried black mushrooms
  • 1 8 oz. can water chestnuts, drained and chopped
  • 1 8 oz. can bamboo shoots, drained and chopped
  • 1 cup green peas
  • Vegetable oil
  • Iceberg lettuce leaves
  • 1 Tbs. light soy sauce
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 4 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tsp. sugar
Seasoning Sauce
  • 2 Tbs. light soy sauce
  • 2 Tbs. chicken stock
  • 2 tsp. cornstarch
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper


Soak the mushrooms in warm water for about 30 minutes. The mushrooms will float, so use something to weigh them down and keep them in the water. When done, discard the stems and dice the rest.

While the mushrooms soak, prepare the meat. Trim off excess fat from the chicken and pork, and mince into small pieces, about 1 cm. square. Mince the chicken livers and combine all three meats in a bowl. Add all marinade ingredients and set aside for about 10 minutes.

Heat a few inches of vegetable oil in a wok on high heat. Break up the noodles into chunks that will easily fit in the wok. Once the oil is very hot, carefully place the noodles in the oil. The noodles will immediately and dramatically puff up. Flip over to puff the other side, and set aside to cool. Do this for all the noodles. Allow the oil to cool a bit and transfer to a container. We will use the oil to stir fry the other ingredients later.

In batches, stir fry the marinated meat mixture on high heat until cooked through and browned. I did this in three batches. Set aside when done. Stir fry the diced onion for a few minutes, then add the mushrooms, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots. Mix all seasoning sauce ingredients in a bowl. Stir fry another minute or two, then add the meat, peas, and sauce. Stir together.

Crush the fried noodles into small pieces. Pour the meat and vegetable mixture over the crushed noodles to serve. Serve with the lettuce leaves, which can be used to wrap the mixture.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Steamed Spareribs with Fermented Black Beans (豉汁排骨)

Greetings, dear readers! It's good to be back. To my shame, it turns out this is only my third post this year. Unfortunately, with a very busy spring semester at IU, the blog suffered. I hope to make up for the deficiency this summer. Pei Mei's Chinese Cook Book is still full of fun, weird stuff I can't wait to try, modernize, and share with you. I've got some exciting stuff planned for the next few weeks, so stay tuned. 

We're starting off with something simple, but a true classic -- dim sum-style spare ribs. I'm a huge fan of dim sum (it's in my blood!) and my attempts to recreate traditional dim sum dishes will always be a big part of No Free Lunch. As far as dim sum goes, it doesn't get any easier than this. This recipe is my own, based on three others: Pei Mei, Chan's Classic Deem Sum, and The Woks of Life. The Chinese name, chizhi paigu (see jup pai gwut in Cantonese) translates to "fermented bean juice spareribs," pretty straightforward, for a change.

There are two notable ingredients to discuss. The first are the ribs themselves. American supermarkets typically don't have spareribs cut up in the way we need. In this case, I found them at an Asian grocery, but if you can find a butcher to cut them up for you, that works too. I have previously made these from a whole rack of spareribs. Cutting up the thick bones is not practical at home, so I used the big end of the rack for braising and cut up the small end (with its softer bones) for steaming. The other ingredient is douchi -- fermented black beans. These are pretty easy to find at Chinese stores. This ingredient has shown up once before, in my stir fried fish recipe. One final note: most recipes include minced hot peppers. I omitted them, but if you like your ribs spicy, put them in.

This recipe is per pound of ribs. I had about 2 1/2 pounds, and adjusted the marinade accordingly. 

  • 1 lb. spare ribs, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 Tbs. light soy sauce
  • 1 Tbs. fermented black beans, rinsed
  • 1 Tbs. Shaoxing wine or sherry
  • 1 green onion, chopped (white part only)
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 Tbs. cornstarch
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbs minced hot pepper (optional)


To rinse the beans, mix with a little water in a bowl, then pour off the water through fingers or a strainer. Do this twice. Mix all ingredients in a large plastic bag or bowl. Add the ribs, and mix well. Marinate in the refrigerator for a few hours, one if you're in a hurry. Mix about halfway through.

Ready to steam

Prepare the wok for steaming. I use a steamer rack inside the wok, and fill the water to just below the rack. Get the water boiling. Place the rib mixture in a dish or bowl, and place on the rack. Cover and let steam until the ribs are cooked through.

Once the ribs start steaming, get some water boiling on the side. Check the ribs after every 10 minutes for temperature and water level. Add hot water as needed. If you are making a lot of ribs, such that there are multiple layers in the dish, mix them around for even cooking. Larger batches will take longer. Mine took about 30-40 minutes. Serve the ribs on their own or with rice.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Kosher for Passover Scotch Eggs

Passover always presents a culinary challenge. Eliminating flour is one thing, but cutting the traditionally avoided kitniyot (beans, corn, rice, and other grains) is quite another. My reliance on bean-related ingredients (fermented and otherwise) usually means I do little cooking during the week of Passover. My only contribution this year was chicken kebabs and brussels sprouts. Ariel suggested I make a kosher for Passover version of Scotch eggs. Scotch eggs were one of my earliest posts, and remain a family favorite, so this sounded like a fun experiment.

I will always maintain Scotch eggs are deceptively easy to make. The only trouble is the moderate hassle of deep frying. The basic recipe involved the time-honored breading technique of flour, egg wash, then breadcrumbs that I've used in several other recipes. The flour and breadcrumbs are replaced by two Passover-friendly ingredients: matzo cake meal and matzo meal. The cake meal is made of ground matzo, and is roughly the consistency of flour, while the matzo meal generally resembles breadcrumbs. This is my first time using these ingredients, so they are still somewhat "exotic" to me, the results were great. I used a basic bulk breakfast sausage here, but as I noted on the original recipe, any will do. 

  • 4 hard boiled eggs
  • 3/4 lb. sausage
  • 1 raw egg
  • Matzo cake meal
  • Matzo meal
  • Vegetable oil for frying


Preheat oil in a deep fryer, wok, or saucepan to about 375 degrees F. Use enough oil to mostly submerge the eggs. 

Divide the sausage into four equal balls. Flatten and wrap around each egg. Carefully work the sausage until eggs are completely encased. Roll the balls around in palms to make sure covering is even and sealed. 

Spread a little cake meal on a plate and dredge the sausage-covered eggs all over. Beat the raw egg in a bowl. Spread out the matzo meal on a plate. Dip each Scotch egg in the beaten egg, roll around to coat, then dredge in the matzo meal until thoroughly coated.

Carefully drop the eggs into the hot oil and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. I cooked them in pairs in my small deep fryer. Cut in half for serving. I use a serrated bread knife to cut, as this allows cutting through the crunchy exterior cleanly. I served with a mix of mayonnaise and Sriracha sauce.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Birthday Special 2017

Well, dear readers, it's that time of year again -- Ariel's birthday. I managed to pull off another cake for the third year running. I researched a great many cake recipes, but ended up falling back on the same one as last year, and I think it turned out even better this time. However, I went with a vanilla buttercream frosting on this one. I'm getting a bit more comfortable with the whole process, and it has become apparent that the most difficult step is applying frosting to the sides and edges of the cake. The wine pairing for the cake was a 2001 North Point ice wine that I've been saving for a while. 

Since I was already confident in my ability to produce vehicle-based cake designs, it was time to branch out into animals. Cats were clearly the place to start, since I do have an excellent model. It occurs to me now that the face got a bit rounder than it should have, but there are plenty of cakes to come for that. Ariel also hinted at being open to a return of my (in)famous vehicular cakes, so stay tuned for next year.

Freyja the cake model

Interestingly enough, our dinner tonight (Ariel's request) perfectly mirrored the one from last year -- lamb and mushroom kebabs. That probably means a recipe for that one will be forthcoming.

In other news, No Free Lunch turned five years old this month. Unfortunately, this was my leanest year yet in terms of posts, but there were some great recipes in that select club. 2016 saw my return to Indian cuisine, a Chinese dim sum recipe with a weird new ingredient, as well as a true original of my own devising. I also made my take on a French classic and updated an old favorite. I ended the year on a truly special note with party salad, a real family tradition. One of my students also found the blog and made my taco recipe. Students, if you're reading this, make this one, and I'll really be impressed. 

Thank you to all of you for the continued support for this project over the last five years. I'm looking forward to at least that many more. And, of course, happy birthday, Ariel. You inspire me to make at least one delicious cake a year, but more importantly, better food every single day.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Party Salad

I've written at length on this blog about the Chinese food traditions on Dad's side of the family, and will likely continue to do so in the future. Today, however, I reach deep into Mom's Minnesotan roots, place we have deliciously ventured only once before. The word "salad" has something of a broader meaning in the Upper Midwest, one that often includes ingredients like whipped cream, cream cheese, and, most famously, jello. The radioactive treat featured today, known simply as "party salad," has been a holiday staple in my family for decades. Just last week, a bowl of party salad stood proudly on the Thanksgiving table.

This particular recipe originates with one Selma Nikunen, whose arrival in town was accompanied by many exciting new recipes. The party salad recipe was enshrined in one of the many church and community cookbooks which are now being passed down to me. These cookbooks provide an incredible window into another time, including such recipes as "Romance Cake," "Left-Over Meat Dumplings," and various chop sueys which are all actually just hotdish. 

The walnuts have always been omitted in my family, but could provide an interesting textural counterpoint. Note that the recipe below is the base recipe, but the photos show a roughly doubled batch. For those non-Minnesotans out there, this is sure to look like an odd one, but trust me, it just works!

  • 1 small can crushed pineapple in juice
  • 1 small package lime jello
  • 1 cup water
  • 10 large marshmallows (adjust if less sweetness is desired)
  • 1 cup cottage cheese
  • 1 cup whipped cream


Use a strainer to separate the pineapple from the juice. Set aside the pineapple pieces. 

Party salad is the key to a long, happy life

Combine juice with jello mix and water in a saucepan. Boil this mixture for 2 minutes. 

If it looks like a science experiment, you're doing it right

Add marshmallows and let them melt into the jello. Remove from heat and let cool.

Note the pineapple sinking to the bottom

Add cottage cheese, whipped cream, and pineapple. Mix thoroughly and chill until set. To avoid the solid ingredients sinking to the bottom, stir after 30 minutes of chilling.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Char Siu Reloaded

Char siu (叉燒) is easily one of my "signature" recipes, and was one of my early posts. My original post was based on grandpa's recipe. He was vague, as usual. He took out two jars (bean sauce and fermented tofu) and said to use half and half of each. As an afterthought, he mentioned I could throw in some five spice, but that was optional. In the early days of No Free Lunch, most of my recipes were a recounting of the first time I had made things. Naturally, the recipe has evolved over the last few years, as I've made it countless times.

In the time since the original post, I've seen a lot of char siu recipes, including those in Henry Chan's Classic Deem Sum and the venerable Peimei's Chinese Cook Book. Most of these recipes involve some combination of hoisin sauce, soy sauce, some other flavoring and coloring agents. What they typically don't include are grandpa's main ingredients. While I'm sure these recipes are fine, the combination of fermented tofu and bean sauce gives the meat a deep flavor unlike anything else. It's definitely worth seeking out these unusual ingredients.

This is, ultimately, a simple recipe, and lives and dies by the ingredients. Although you can use almost any cut of pork, I usually shoulder, which has a good mix of muscle and fat. I generally buy a whole shoulder roast and cut up about half for char siu, leaving the rest to become potsticker filling. Some grocery stores also sell "country ribs," which are pre-sliced shoulder or loin pieces that can go straight into the marinade. I don't recommend using pork steaks, as I did in my original recipe, as this tend to be a bit too thin.

Koon Chun bean sauce is a fermented soy bean product from Hong Kong. I've used it in quite a few recipes, so it's an indispensable ingredient in my kitchen. I usually use the chunky version, but the ground one works fine if you have that. Possessing a potent funk, fermented bean curd (a.k.a. fermented tofu) is the real exotic ingredient here. When buying, be aware that there are three kinds: white, red, and spicy. We want the red, non-spicy kind. The most commonly available brand, at least around here, is Wangzhihe. Both of these can be hard to find, and you need to go to a Chinese store. Both are also available on Amazon. 

The last thing to mention is the whiskey. You can substitute, within reason, whatever booze you have. That being said, I always use Jameson's Irish Whiskey. It just happened to be what I had the first time I made char siu, and it just stuck as a tradition. Let's call it my secret ingredient.

The recipe is also now in a more convenient per-pound formulation that can easily be scaled up. 

  • Pork shoulder, cut into strips (can substitute other cuts)
Marinade, per pound of meat
  • 2 Tbs Koon Chun bean sauce or ground bean sauce
  • 2 Tbs red fermented bean curd, mix of liquid and tofu
  • 1 Tbs honey
  • 1 Tbs whiskey
  • 1/4 tsp five spice powder


Cut the meat into thick strips. It is important to keep some fat, but you can trim off large chunks on the sides. 

In a large bowl, prepare the marinade. Combine the bean sauce, fermented bean curd, honey, whiskey, and five spice. Mash the tofu and mix everything into a paste. Add the pork, and toss until the meat is well-coated. Cover with plastic wrap and move to the refrigerator. Marinate for at least 5 hours, or overnight.

Bean sauce (left) and fermented bean curd (right)

If using a grill, cook on relatively high flame with the hood open. Turn occasionally, until well browned on all sides. Alternatively, you can broil the pork, turning once. 

Let cool a few minutes before slicing into thin pieces. Char siu keeps well if frozen, and can be defrosted in the microwave. It is excellent on its own, or as part of another dish, like Yangzhou fried rice or a noodle soup.