Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

I’ve done it! After a full summer of fighting sore knees, asthmatic wheezing, and general laziness I can finally call myself a jogger. Not a runner, no – heavens no – but a jogger…yes! Of course, many of you are probably wondering why I would even bother at all and I admit I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for two things. First, with my new grad student lifestyle (read: timetable and budget) I realized I would actually have to make an effort at being healthy; weekly climbing and kayaking trips were just not in the cards anymore. Second, my doctor had never shown as much shock as she did the day I admitted I couldn’t jog past 3 minutes out of doors. Five spirometer tests later (I had failed the first three and insisted on trying twice more – to no avail) and my lung capacity was determined to be significantly below average and back at the level I had been at as a chunky 12 year old. Embarrassing.

My initial attempts at running here in Halifax were just like all my previous ones back home: miserable. I couldn’t go for more than a few minutes at a time and felt like death every time I did so. I felt like such a fraud, trying to do something I have never been good at in the least. It also stung my pride that here I was, the same gal who could kayak all day and hold side-planks like a champ, gasping for breath when jogging a lowly 4 mph. Luckily for me and my lungs, my stubbornness is one of my strongest features and this time it really came in handy.

By our apartment there is a beautiful, large park right on the bay. All summer I’ve managed to get my butt out the door and into the park several times a week. I was still jogging painfully slow, but after the first six weeks or so it actually started feeling pretty good afterwards. The pattern would usually be a 5 minute warm-up walk followed by alternating 3 minutes jogging, 5 minutes walking, for one circumference of the park (~ 2.8 miles). The first few minutes of every jog continued to be torturous as my body fought me down to the very. last. synapse. …but if I were able to hold out my muscles would slooowly start to comply. By the end of July I seemed to have actually won my body over and the entire routine was comfortably challenging.

The real breakthrough came just a few weeks ago. I had been looking up running tips and learned that beginners should just focus on the goal of jogging for 15 minutes at any pace, before they worry about things like rate or distance. “Bummer,” I thought, “there’s no way that’s going to happen.” At this point, I had improved to 6 minutes of jogging, but that was the top of my game. However, I also read that one should warm up for at least 10 whole minutes – that’s quite long when you actually time it. So, the next day, I walked for 10 minutes before jogging and then told myself I wouldn’t stop jogging until my legs literally gave out on me. I would keep my slowest pace – pride be damned! – but I would just keep going. Perhaps not the healthiest experiment, haha, but I really wanted to push myself and see what I could do.

Well I didn’t make it the entire route, but I did make it 2/3 of the way – a whopping 11 minutes of straight (slow) jogging! Unbelievable. I had to take my puffer as a went and I certainly was a striking shade of pink walking home, haha, but I had nearly doubled my past time. It was challenging enough that I almost chickened out on trying it the next week. Since I hadn’t experienced any injury or actual pain from the first attempt, though, I told myself I had to do it again, that I could do it again. And I did. And I’ve kept doing it. The other shoe finally dropped just a few days ago when I went out and clocked a 10-minute-mile during that same route. Let me say that again: a TEN MINUTE MILE. Better get your mitts out, hell just froze over. And I am ecstatic. 😀

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps (America’s Test Kitchen Light & Healthy 2010)

Ingredients:

1½   C   water

1   C   short-grain rice (such as sushi rice), rinsed

3   T   fish sauce

zest and juice of 1 lime (~ 3 T juice, 2 t zest)

1½   T   brown sugar

1   t   cornstarch

1   lb.  ground chicken

2   t   canola oil

1   Thai or jalapeño chili; stemmed, seeded, and minced*

¼   C   chopped fresh basil**

3   scallions, thinly sliced

12   Bibb or Boston lettuce leaves (~ 1 head)

* Note: For more heat, include some or all of the seeds

** Note: Since I needed to trim my mint plant anyway (my first potted herb since moving across the border! Excuse me while I do a little dance…), I used mint leaves and loved the flavor they added to the dish. If you want more authentic flavors, stick to basil, but I highly recommend you try a little mint at some point. You’ll be surprised.

Procedure:

1) Start the water and rice cooking in your rice cooker  – or bring both to boil in a medium saucepan over High heat before covering, reducing heat to Low, and cooking for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and let rice sit, covered, for 15 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

2) As the rice cooks, whisk fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar, and cornstarch together in a small bowl and set aside. In a medium bowl, mash the ground chicken with the back of a spoon or a potato masher until no stringy pieces remain.

3) Heat the oil in a 12″ non-stick skillet over Medium heat until shimmering. Add the chicken, chili, and lime zest and cook until meat is no longer pink – breaking up the meat constantly as it cooks – about 5 minutes. Whisk the fish sauce mixture briefly to recombine and add it to the skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens – about 45 seconds. Remove skillet from heat and stir in basil and scallions. Transfer chicken to a serving bowl and serve immediately with rice and lettuce leaves.

4) To assemble wraps: put a spoonful of rice into the center of each lettuce leaf and top with a spoonful a chicken. Fold the edges of the leaf up to form a taco-shape and eat with your hands. The trick is not to stuff them – easy does it!

Alternative serving suggestion of you really want to load up your wraps or are concerned with spills.

Beezer’s Notes:

I’m very happy I decided to try this easy and light recipe. I’m always a sucker for Asian dishes and this one gives you full-scale flavor without investing hardly any time or ingredients. I ended up making this twice in a single week – with NO leftovers surviving! A big thank you to Shane who supplied me with lovely home-grown veggies, including the scallions that I couldn’t find in either grocery store (Halifax grocers are just odd); the next handful are going on my potatoes haha. Quick note: although I think they’re just perfect, Brad thought the wraps were a little dry. You may want to keep a little soy sauce or other Asian-themed sauce handy to top these off, if you so desire.

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

茄子田楽 (Nasu Dengaku)

The other day I was walking home from the grocery store with our heavy-duty, reusable shopping bags stretched to the brim in each hand. I was huffing and puffing my way back up the hill and trying to distract myself from my aching fingers by going over my mental to-do list, which seems to grow longer every day. “Catch Up on Research” is always a big one, closely followed by “Do  Galactic Homework”, and then usually “Grade Pile of Lab Books”. “Squeeze in Practice” has begun cropping up more frequently since I’m painfully close to becoming fully certified with my volunteer organization (if I could just get in a few more hours…) and also “Get Lazy Butt to Gym”, for obvious reasons. Now that it’s midterm week for the undergrads I must also add “Review General Relativity” for the help desk I’m manning this term, plus “Solve Quiz Problems” for a student who needs some extra 1-on-1 help.

I had nearly succeeded in giving myself a panic attack when it began to snow…but it wasn’t the usual burst of flurries we’ve been getting shoved in our faces the last few weeks or so. It was almost as if the snowflakes were suspended around us, gently twirling and looping around, but appearing not to fall; as if they were simply part of the air we breathe: floating quietly up the block and bobbing down another. At this point, the Sun escaped its normal cloud cover and shone more brightly than I’d seen in weeks. The final effect was beautifully surreal as the sunlight made the tiny ice crystals glint and glimmer as they rose and danced around those of us bundled up along the sidewalk.

By the time I made it home, the wind had grown and the snow had returned to its usual cheek-stinking behavior. The Sun had vanished and my fingers were numb (Brad does always complain that I walk slow). Waiting in line for the remaining working elevators, I was happier than any graduate student has a right to be this time of year. It’s amazing what a little fresh air and sunshine can do. 🙂

(茄子田楽) Nasu Dengaku

(slightly adapted from Let’s Cook Japanese Food! by Amy Kaneko)

Ingredients:

5   T   white miso

2½   T   sugar

1   T   mirin

1   large egg yolk

¼   Cup   water

1   medium-size globe eggplant (~1 lb.)

2   T   sesame oil, separated

2   T   canola or neutral oil, separated

sesame seeds for garnish

Procedure:

1) First make the miso topping by whisking together the miso, sugar, mirin, egg yolk, and water in a small saucepan. Heat over Medium-low heat and whisk gently but constantly until the sugar has dissolved and the sauce is very smooth – about 4 minutes. Never allow the sauce to come to boil. Remove from heat and set aside.

2) Trim the ends off of the eggplant and slice into ½” rounds. Score each round with a shallow cross-hatching to help miso topping stick. Preheat broiler and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

3) In a large frying pan, heat ½ Tablespoon of each oil (for a combined amount of 1 Tablespoon oil added to pan) over Medium-high heat. When the oil blend is hot, add as many eggplant rounds as you can without crowding (I had to do 4 batches, but if you can fit more at a time go for it). Wait until the first side has lightly browned before flipping the rounds and lightly browning the other side – about 4 minutes per side. After each batch has finished, set rounds on paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil. You’ll want the rounds to be soft, but still hold their shape.

4) Once all the eggplant has cooked, transfer the pieces to the prepared baking sheet and spread an equal amount of miso topping over each. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and slide the pan under the broiler about 4″ away from the heat source. Broil until the miso topping is bubbly and has begun to brown – about 5 minutes. Remove from oven, plate, and serve immediately.

Beezer’s Notes:

Well, I told you about my new eggplant kick and my wish to experiment with more miso recipes, so really this combination shouldn’t be a surprise, haha. Traditionally, dengaku is a firm tofu skewered and grilled with this same kind of thick miso sauce. I was first served it at one of my Iaido sensei’s fantastic dinners (look on the grill). I’ve tasted very similar toppings on fish and other veggies as well – although never eggplant…until now. I really love the taste of miso, and so the thick, rich, salty-yet-sweet flavor of this dish was great for me. However, the rounds were very soft and almost gooey with the sauce, making them difficult to eat – even with rice. I think next time I’ll spring for the slightly more expensive mini-eggplants I’ve seen in the produce isle: small globes that look like slightly irregular, dark golfballs. I bet those would be great drenched in this topping and broiled to juicy perfection, and their natural bite-sized nature will make for easier eating.

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥

Sweet Garam Masala Chicken

One of my biggest pet-peeves in life is when something is actually more work for me, less work for businesses, and yet is more expensive. This sort of ties in with another pet-peeve of mine: how it seems like clothing items are now made with far less fabric, from tissue-like weaves, and even have giant holes and yet are costing me more of my money than ever. Seriously, I just don’t get the holes.

When I saw the inspiration for this recipe on Pioneer Woman Cooks I became really excited about grinding my own garam masala mix. You can do a Google search and come up with countless variations on the spice blend all whipped up in a simple two-step process: 1. toast your seeds/spices of choice and 2. grind the toasted mix into a fine powder. I haven’t used my little food processor in a while and the whole recipe seemed too easy (and tasty!) to ignore…

…but then, after three grocery store trips and a handful of phone calls, I learned that the only whole seeds available for these spices within reasonable distance were sold in small, palm-sized packets at $5 a pop. I would need at least 3 packets of each spice to grind down the amount I needed and the total cost ended up being ridiculous. So, as much as I want to be able to share with you an authentic, from-scratch recipe (is it just me or have I been using a lot of hyphens in this post?) my first priority is to share with you what I have made and how it turned out.

I ended up spending about $5 per spice still, but got 34 grams of powder each for the cost. At least I will get many more meals out of them in the future, even if those meals aren’t quite as flavorful. On a student budget I can’t afford to be so picky. By all means, if you can find whole seeds for a reasonable price use them! Your taste buds will thank you.

Sweet Garam Masala Chicken (adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks)

Quick note about this recipe: the original post on Ree’s blog calls for marinating nearly twice as much chicken in 4 Cups each of milk and yogurt. A few Indian readers commented and confirmed that the method posted was a bit inauthentic as well as excessive; one said, “I’m Indian, and we don’t use MILK to marinate – just the yoghurt makes the chicken moist and tender… and FOUR cups of MILK + YOGHURT is just excessive. One cup of yoghurt would suffice to marinate a chicken on its own!!” After reading a few more comments from those claiming Indian heritage, I decided to downgrade the recipe to 2 Cups of yogurt only.

Ingredients:

1   whole chicken, cut into pieces

(or about 3 lbs. bone-in, skin-on chicken parts if you prefer a certain kind)

2   Cups whole plain yogurt (more fat content = better tenderizer)

1   T   coriander

1   T   ginger

1   t   cumin

1   t   black pepper

1   t   cloves

1   t   cinnamon

½   t   cardomom

1   dried bay leaf, crumbled

1   generous pinch of salt

several pinches of dried herbs for garnish, as desired (I used thyme)

Procedure:

1) Mix spices and bay leaf bits together until well blended. In a small bowl, whisk the garam masala mixture into the yogurt until fully incorporated. Pour a small amount into the bottom of a 1 gallon-size freezer bag. Add two pieces of chicken and then pour in a bit more of the yogurt. Alternate chicken pieces and yogurt until all of the yogurt and chicken is in the bag. Carefully squeeze out any excess air and seal the bag. Gently message the chicken a bit to make sure all pieces are well-coated before placing the bag in the refrigerator overnight to marinate.

2) The next day, pour the contents of the bag into a large bowl. Discard the bag. If you’re lucky enough to be in a climate that allows you to grill in winter, go start it up and follow Ree’s directions for grilling here. Otherwise stick around – you’re in good company – and preheat your oven to 375°F.

3) Heat a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed skillet over Medium-high heat and sear chicken pieces 2 or 3 at a time, depending on the space. You’re looking to brown the outside of the chicken well, but not to cook through – about 3 to 5 minutes per side. I only flipped my pieces once to get a good sear on each side, used tongs to sear the edges, and then placed them in a 9 x 13″ glass baking dish.

4) Bake uncovered for about 45 minutes to an hour or until the skin of the chicken is dark and crisp and the internal temperature registers at a solid 165°F. You may have to remove smaller pieces (wings, drumsticks) earlier as they won’t take as long to cook.

5) Let the chicken rest for a few minutes before serving. Is excellent with mango or strawberry lassis if you have some extra yogurt and frozen fruit and/or sorbet lying around. 😉

Beezer’s Notes:

It’s really amazing what a bit of plain, humble little yogurt can do to a chicken. The tenderness of the meat plus the full flavors of the garam masala blend really make for a delicious bird. The spices smelled absolutely heavenly throughout the whole process, too, so this is a great dish to cook for company – you can tempt them with the amazing scents coming from your kitchen plus most of the work is done the night before! My only – very minor – complaint is that I’m not sure if the blend I chose really tastes all that “Indian”. Even without a bit of sugar the cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander reminded me of pumpkin pie so it tasted almost sweet to me (I suppose that could also be from the yogurt) – hence the name “Sweet Garam Masala Chicken”. Feel free to play around with the spices though and find your own mix! Add some heat, punch up the pepper, make it more exotic with some anise…the blends are endless.

Overall Enjoyment:  ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

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