agar-agar

in this RecipEmail:

  • a note from Andrea
  • a recipe for Pear Agar Jellies
  • Agar: The Secret Ingredient
   ***

Gong Hey Fat Choy!

(That means Happy Chinese New Year.)

Back in the days when I worked in book publishing, Chinese New Year was a grand time for sweet indulgence and taking a deep breath. I worked with suppliers from around the globe, but most were located in China, with offices in Hong Kong.

When I traveled to Hong Kong it was hard work. I was often on press check, woken up around the clock to go to the print factory and look over sheets as they came off the printing presses. Certain books wouldn’t be printed without my approval and it took a keen eye and stellar fortitude to check for color perfection at 2, 3, 4am. Though not much could bring me to tears, the pressure of those excursions could, and often would!

But there was always the reward.

The reward for me in Hong Kong was the food.

Time after time my Chinese colleagues would ask me: What kind of food do you want tonight? My response was always the same: Chinese of course!

There was Cantonese, Hunan, Szechuan and more. There was Dim Sum, hot pot and these little lotus buns I would procure from tiny bakeries tucked down damp alleys early in the morning. While I could let the chicken feet go, I was keen on walking the wharf with my printing friend Francis (who was also an amateur fisherman). He would buy the fish fresh off the boat, take it to the hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the pier, and tell the chef exactly how to prepare it. It was food heaven.

My biggest surprise came in the form of dessert. Sweet bean soups and squares of jelly, like thick Jell-o, unusual yet satisfying in both flavor and texture.

It was several more years before I found the constituent that turned those bean pastes and fruits into little wobbly squares of sweetness. It was agar agar! A clear, flavorless seaweed that works like magic.

I first bought it unknowingly to create the blueberry glaze in a Lemon Pudding Cake in Myra Kornfeld’s The Voluptuous Vegan over a decade ago. And there it was. . .

The secret ingredient.

Back in San Francisco, with advance copy books and press sheets piled around me, when Chinese New Year rolled around, my colleagues sent me their good wishes in the form of oranges, sticky cakes, almond cookies and luscious little moon pies. And then they would disappear. For two weeks there were no faxes, no emails, no packages and no after-hour phone calls. They were off to celebrate with family and friends. And all work came to a pleasant pause.

Though I no longer eat some of the ingredients that were included in those delicacies (or work in book publishing), it’s fun to tinker with alternatives that rekindle my Chinese culinary fancy. It’s also quite lovely to think of that sweet pause!

And thus my recent obsession with agar.

Happy year of the DRAGON!

Very warmly,

 ***

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 ***

Pear Agar Jellies

There’s no need to be scared of seaweed. Really. It goes well beyond sushi with myriad possibilities for flavor sidestepping the salty sea. Seaweeds are a natural way to boost your immunity, cleanse your body of toxins and protect you from heart disease and cancer. And not that I’m a calorie counter, but you can make a no-to-low cal. something to satisfy your afternoon snack attack. Agar-agar has no calories at all!

serves approximately 2 to 4

ingredients:
4 cups water
1 tablespoon agar-agar flakes
2 Red Bartlett Pears, cored and chopped
1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 good squirt liquid vanilla stevia
pinch sea salt
nutmeg for sprinkling (optional)

preparation:

  1. Heat the 4 cups of water in a pot to boil. Add the agar flakes and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring to allow the agar flakes to dissolve.
  2. Allow the agar water to cool slightly and then pour the contents of the pot into a blender. Add remaining ingredients. Blend on high until liquified.
  3. Taste the warm blended mixture to make sure it meets your taste requirements. Add more spice or sweetener to taste.
  4. Pour the liquid into molds, Jell-o cups, or a flat glass dish. Sprinkle with nutmeg if you choose. (If choosing the flat glass dish, allow the jelly to harden and cut it into squares or shapes with a cookie cutter.)

Agar-agar: The Secret Ingredient

Agar is a vegetarian gelatin. It’s made from red seaweed that is processed into bars, flakes or powders. You may find the bars labeled as ‘kanten’.

According to Myra Kornfield:
“One kanten bar is equivalent to 1/4 cup flakes. Either one bar or 1/4 cup flakes is the correct amount to gel 1 quart of liquid. The amount can vary depending on what else is in the recipe. The powder is five times as strong as the flakes, so 1 tablespoon of powder is equivalent to 5 tablespoons of flakes. Use the powder only when you are also using a sweetener such as maple syrup, never when you want to gel only juice. This is because the powder has a bit of a sea-taste that the flakes and bars do not have.”

You can usually find agar flakes or bars in health foods stores or Asian markets.

The Health Benefits of Agar:

: : Agar-agar has a very cooling thermal nature. This means it can help reduce internal inflammation and heat conditions such as headaches, fevers and even acne!

: : Agar’s cooling effect can also help relieve that heavy feeling after a meal.

: : Agar is rich in calcium and can help to counterbalance the acid-forming nature of commercial sweeteners in the blood.

: : It helps to eliminate constipation by lubricating the digestive tract. How perfect for after dinner!

: : This seaweed can help with weight loss and reduction. Not only does it have zero calories, but it contains an indigestible fiber that absorbs and retains water, ultimately making you feel fuller faster.

: : Agar soothes the digestive tract and is a great detoxifying agent. it binds to toxic and radioactive pollutants within the body which can then be expelled.

: : In the world of ayurveda agar-agar helps to balance all Doshas of the body.

Two more recipes to try with your agar!
1) This Lemon Millet Bar is a great make-ahead breakfast-on-the-go.

2) My son Gilbert and I are eager to try these tasty looking Coconut, Red Bean and Matcha delicacies with some key ingredients swaps (coconut sugar to replace the demura and full-fat coconut milk and almond milk to replace the ones listed here). If you try it before we do, let us know about your results on the Replenish PDX Facebook page!



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Your comments and feedback are always welcome. Is there an ingredient you'd like to learn more about? Is there a nutrition class you always wish existed? Let me know!