Second Cooking Lesson with Ayu

For our second cooking lesson we made Sweet Tempeh, Fried Noodles, and Black Rice Pudding for dessert. I thought I should mention that the sweet soy sauce we used is thick like maple syrup. I’ll have to look for it in my Asian market at home. The little packet on the left in the photo is oyster sauce, which technically violates the vegetarian thing, but I don’t care.

All the ingredients for the whole meal. The plate on the right (next to the coconut) contains black rice, 2 blocks of palm sugar, 2 bananas, and the fragrant panandan leaves. The iron tool next to the coconut is for opening the coconut.

Sweet Tempeh  (Serves 2)


2 blocks tempeh

Tempeh wrapped in a banana leaf. It’s about the same size as our blocks of tempeh at home.

6 garlic cloves

1 small shallot

1 red chili, seeds and veins removed

3 green onions

1 stalk celery, including some of the leaves

1 T. sweet soy sauce

1 T. ketchup

1 T. oyster sauce

coconut oil for frying


  1. Peel and mince the garlic, slice the shallots, and chop the red chilies. Put each ingredient on its own small plate.
  2. Cut the tempeh into small rectangular slabs about ¼ inch x ¼ inch x ¾ inch.
  3. Chop the green onions, including about 2 inches of the green part. Dice the celery and chop the leaves.
  4. Heat coconut oil (1/4 inch deep) in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, carefully add the tempeh cubes and move them around in the pan to coat with the oil. Continue moving them around gently with spatula until they are golden on all sides. (You don’t need to turn them individually.)
  5. Remove the tempeh to a strainer or colander set over a bowl. Reserve 2 T. of the coconut oil.
  6. Using the same pan, heat the 2 T. of coconut oil. When it is hot, add the shallot and cook until golden brown. Add the garlic and the chili and stir fry for a minute or two until fragrant. Add the green onions, celery and the tempeh. Gently stir to mix.
  7. Add the sweet soy sauce, the ketchup, the oyster sauce, and a little salt and white pepper. Stir to coat all pieces with the sauce.
  8. Taste and correct flavors. Remove to a serving dish.

Sweet tempeh served on a banana leaf. This was one of our favorite dishes in Bali. I could have eaten this every day.


Fried Noodles (Balinese style)     Serves a lot more than 2


1 pkg wavy Asian egg noodles

8 garlic cloves

1 large shallot

2 red chili, seeds and veins removed

4 green onions

2 stalk celery, including some of the leaves

1 bunch bok choy, washed and dried

2 eggs

1 medium carrot

½ small head of cabbage (2 cups chopped)

3 T. sweet soy sauce

3 T. ketchup

3 T. oyster sauce

2 T. coconut oil for frying



  1. Put on a pot of water to boil while you prepare the vegetables. When it boils, cook the noodles according to the directions on the package. Drain and add a little oil so the noodles don’t stick together. Set aside.
  2. Peel and mince the garlic, slice the shallots, and chop the red chilies. Put each ingredient on its own small plate.
  3. Dice the celery and green onions, including about 2 inches of the green part. Chop the bok choy and cabbage into bite size pieces. Dice the carrot. Dice the celery and chop the leaves.
  4. Heat coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. (You can use some of the coconut oil that you used to fry the tempeh.) When it is hot, add the shallot and cook until golden brown. Add the garlic and the chili and stir fry for a minute or two until fragrant.
  5. Add the green onions and celery and cook for 1 minute. Crack 2 eggs into the pan and stir them around until cooked and combined with the vegetables. Add the carrot, bok choy, and cabbage. Stir to mix well.
  6. Add the noodles.
  7. Add the sweet soy sauce, the ketchup, the oyster sauce, and a little salt and white pepper. Stir to coat all pieces with the sauce.
  8. Taste and correct flavors. Remove to a serving dish.

Fried noodles, ready to eat.

Black Rice Pudding

This dish takes some advance planning since the black rice needs to be soaked and cooked ahead of time. The whole dish can be made ahead of time and reheated for dessert or for breakfast.



½ cup black rice

1 can coconut milk (or you can make your own coconut milk like we did. Instructions below.)

¾ cup palm sugar or ¾ cup dark brown sugar, packed

* 3 fragrant panandan leaves (These are used for flavoring and coloring cakes and other baked goods. Obviously you can only add these if you are in Bali.)


sliced bananas



  1. Soak the black rice for 8 hours or more. Drain off the water.
  2. Put the soaked rice in a large pot and add 10 cups cold water (it should cover the rice by about 5 inches. Cook the rice over low heat for an hour or more. Taste to see if the rice is tender. You should have about ½ an inch of black water in the pan with the rice. If the rice isn’t tender yet, add more water and keep cooking it down until you have tender rice and about ½ inch of creamy, black, soupy water.

*Add the fragrant leaves to the last 15 minutes of cooking time.

3. While the rice is cooking, melt the brown sugar with 1 T. of water until syrupy. Set aside to use later.

4. Add 1 can coconut milk and a pinch of salt to the pot with the black rice. Bring to a boil, stirring so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom. Boil for 5 minutes.

5. Add at least half of the sugar syrup. Taste and add more sugar as desired *Remove the leaves before serving.

6. Serve in small bowls or cups with sliced bananas on top.


Note: Here’s how to make your own coconut milk. This is the way we made it in Bali.

  1. Get a mature coconut off your tree in the back yard. Get your husband to remove the husk with a hatchet.

    Wayan removing the coconut husk.

  2. Crack the coconut open with a penyeluhan, a small crow-bar looking tool that is made just for opening coconuts.
  3. Drain off the coconut water.
  4. Separate the coconut meat from the hard shell. Break off 5 large chunks (about the size of your palm).
  5. Using a traditional wooden grater made from the bark of a palm fern tree, finely grate the coconut meat.

    Grating coconut

  6. Put the grated coconut in a large bowl and add 1½ cups of water. Using your hands, squeeze the water through the grated coconut for about 10 minutes. Remove as much grated coconut as you can with your hands, then drain the coconut milk off using a fine mesh strainer. It is now ready to add to the pot with the black rice (or whatever else you’re making.)
  7. Feed the discarded grated coconut to your pigs. (It makes the meat really tasty I’m told.) Use the coconut shell for making bowls and fancy spoons. Use the coconut husk for grilling suckling pig and other meats, or for your fire dance ceremony.

Word of the Day: Olio di Oliva

Olio di oliva (OH-lee-oh dee oh-LEE-vah): olive oil

Most of the day today was spent in front of a computer doing travel planning, but the big treat was olive oil tasting class with the students. Our wonderful teacher, Todd, gave us some background and history on olives and olive oil. I didn’t want to forget what he said, so I took notes. Here is pretty much our whole class on olive oil:

History of The Olive

The Olive is native to the area that is present day Turkey. It has been cultivated in the countries around the Mediterranean for at least 6,000 years. When Rome fell in 400-something A.D., cultivation of olives in Italy was all but lost. Benedictine monks continued to cultivate olives and saved the traditional methods from being lost. During the Renaissance, the Medici family gave land grants and tax breaks to olive farmers to help beautify the Tuscan countryside. This led to the resurgence of olive oil production in Italy.

The Olive in Mythology

In ancient Greek mythology, Athena and Poseidon both wanted to put their temple on the same piece of prime real estate. Zeus was called in to arbitrate the dispute. He devised a competition and whoever won the competition could have the prime land. The task was to create the most useful thing to humans. Athena created the olive tree and Poseidon created the horse. Zeus judged Athena’s creation to be the most useful and she won the competition. The olive tree gave the people wood, oil, and food, and was therefore considered most useful.


There are 750 million olive trees in production worldwide. 93% of those are in the Mediterranean region. About 7% of all olives harvested are cured and eaten, with the remaining 93% being pressed for olive oil. Italy and Spain are by far the biggest producers of olives in the world. There are 5 million olive trees in the greater Florence area alone. Those 5 million olive trees produce about 6.6 million liters of olive oil per year, or, just a little more than 1 liter of oil per tree. In this same region, there are only about 80 olive presses.

Sicilian olives at the street market in Ferrara.

Olive trees can live a very, very long time. Apparently there is one in the small Mediterranean country of Monte Negro that is 2,000 years old. We saw one on Brijuni Island in Croatia that is 1,600 years old. Most olive trees in production are heavily pruned which keeps their size small. These ancient olive trees, however are quite large. There are many, many species of olives in production in the world. In Italy there are well over 500 species. They range in color, shape, and size – from green, to red, to black, to brown – and from the size of a cherry to the size of crab apples. It is the species and ripeness that accounts for the color of olive oil, not the quality of the oil itself.

Olives can’t be eaten straight off the tree. They are tremendously bitter and slightly toxic to people. Somewhere along the line, people figured out how to cure them to make them edible. Olive trees are sexual and vegetative reproducers, meaning they are pollinated and produce seeds that can be planted and grown into new plants (sexual), and they can be cut down (or cut back) and new shoots will grow, which can be transplanted (vegetative.)

There are 4 primary species of olives used in Tuscan olive oil production: frontoio, moraiolo, leccino, and pendolino (the last is primarily for pollination.)


Olives are typically harvested in the first 2 weeks of November. If you wait later to harvest them, the olives will be more ripe, which will increase the quantity of oil you get from them, but not the quality. The best time for getting high quality olive oil is early November. Nets or parachutes are placed under the tree, and then long plastic combs or rakes are used to remove the olives from the tree. The harvested olives must be taken to press within 48 hours or quality begins to suffer.

There are basically two methods for pressing olives for oil (in Italy). The traditional method uses a large grinding stone to grind the olives into a pulp or paste. This paste is then spread on to large disks which are stacked on top of each other. The disks are then pressed with a large pressing mechanism and put into containers. In order to remove the water (which is very bitter) and any pulp from the oil, the liquid must be decanted. The oil floats to the top and is skimmed off and bottled. A slight modern variation on this method, is that decanters are rarely used these days, and instead the liquid is put through a centrifuge that sends the oil one direction, the water another direction, and the solids come out through the back of the machine. This discarded pulp material – called pumice – is used in a number of applications, including making it into pellets to burn for fuel.

The other more modern method involves putting the olives into a large stainless steel container, rinsing them in cold (or tepid) water, drying them briefly and then using a machine to grind them into a paste. The paste is then machine churned and put immediately into a centrifuge which separates the oil from everything else. This method can get the oil into the bottle more quickly and may make for a fresher tasting oil by the time it reaches the consumer.

Classifications of Olive Oil

There are four classifications of olive oil: extra virgin, virgin, olive oil, and pumice or SANSA oil. Both virgin and extra virgin olive oil are cold-processed, meaning no heat is used to extract the oil. Sometimes you will hear that virgin and extra virgin olive oil is the first pressing of the olives, which is true, but there is only one pressing of the olives. The difference between virgin and extra virgin has to do with the acidity of the oil. Extra virgin olive oil is less than .8% acid, and virgin is higher than .8%. The process is exactly the same. Pumice oil uses the pumice (or ground pulp) that is left over after the pressing process and uses heat and pasteurization to extract more oil from the pulp. This pumice oil is fine for consumption, it just isn’t very tasty. It is cheap and best used for cooking. Bottles labeled just “olive oil” are a blend of virgin olive oil and pumice oil. You can find all four kinds in stores in Italy, though in the U.S. you pretty much only find extra virgin and virgin.

One of the frustrating things about trying to find a good olive oil in the U.S. (or in Italy for that matter) is that the only way to tell if it is good quality is to taste it. There are lots of labeling “tricks” that are completely meaningless such as “Imported from Italy” which doesn’t tell you where the olives were grown, just that they were pressed in Italy and exported from Italy. “Pure olive oil” doesn’t tell you anything about quality. “Light olive oil” is similarly meaningless, unless they just mean light color. You can’t tell flavor and freshness by color. The best thing to look for on the bottle when trying to select a bottle of oil without tasting it is a harvest date or a sell by date. The fresher the oil, the better. If it is September, 2012 and you find a harvest date of November, 2011, that is the freshest you are going to find because the harvests are done in November. If the harvest date is November 2010, it is almost 2 years old and isn’t going to be as good. The sell-by date is stamped as 1 1/2 years from bottling. The oil doesn’t go bad – it will keep for a couple of years – it just won’t be as fresh and tasty as a newer batch. (You should store your olive oil in a dark bottle in a dark, cool location, by the way. If you want to have some handy for cooking, keep a small amount out at a time.)


This is the fun part. Todd poured us three different kinds of oil, in succession. He had us warm the oil by holding the bottom of the cup and swirling it around with our other hand over the top to keep the aroma from escaping. Then we were to smell, then take a good-sized sip. Enough to get the organic compounds and flavors swirling around on our taste buds. This is the best way to get the flavor of the oil itself without complicating it with other flavors, like bread. After you swallow, then you suck in air really fast toward the back of your throat. Really good olive oil will have a slightly peppery taste when you do that. It may have a slightly peppery taste without doing that.

The first one had almost no smell, and almost no taste. It was pumice oil. The second one had a smell like – well, olive oil. It was extra-virgin olive oil from the local supermarket. The third one smelled very green and herby – like cut grass or wheat grass. (It smelled really, really good.) It was also lighter viscosity, and it did have that characteristic peppery taste. It was from a small producer.


So what do you do with this wonderful olive oil, now that you’ve found it. In Tuscany, Italians don’t dip their bread in olive oil like we do. They do use it liberally on soups, salads, beans, roasted vegetables and as a vegetable dip. A platter of fresh vegetables in Italy won’t have ranch dressing in the middle, it will have good quality olive oil with a little salt and pepper on top for you to dip your veggies in. You can put olive oil directly on pasta or rice with a little parmesan cheese for a simple meal. This is especially good for kids if they have an upset stomach. You can gently heat up some olive oil and add a little garlic tiny dried red peppers (which you find everywhere here) to infuse the oil. Scoop out the garlic and peppers and put the infused oil on pasta.

Italians also cook with olive oil. When you use it for cooking, it loses a lot of its aroma and flavor and pretty much all its health benefits. You have to be careful not to get it too hot or it will burn. If you don’t get it hot enough and you’re using it to fry, it will absorb into the food too much and make it soggy or greasy. However, if you get the temperature right, it is just fine for cooking. Of course, you don’t want to use your very best olive oil for this.

Lots of stores now sell olive oil infused with garlic or peppers or herbs. There’s no reason to pay extra for that when you can do the same thing yourself at home. Keep your batches small and use them up frequently. Many Italian kitchens will have chili pepper infused olive oil to put on pizza.

That’s everything I can remember. If you have any other information about olive oil, by all means, post a comment and let us know. There are lots of health benefits of olive oil and I didn’t take good notes during that section of the class. If I got any of the details wrong, please help me get them right. Also, if you have any good sources for buying olive oil, either in Italy or in the United States, please let us know about that too.

Cooking class

One of the many cultural activities that students, teachers, and (lucky for me) significant others can participate in during the semester abroad in Florence is a couple of Italian cooking classes. George and I went to the first of two offered during the semester. I see it as an opportunity to learn some new recipes and cooking techniques and to work with real Italian cooks. George sees it as an opportunity to socialize and eat. Don’t get me wrong – George is very helpful and participatory.

Our menu for the evening was:

  • Baked caprese salad with eggplant
  • Potato gnocchi with meat sauce (or fresh tomato sauce for the vegetarians)
  • Salame dolce

We started our class by making dessert – salame dolce, or “sweet salame”. I had never heard of this dessert before and couldn’t imagine why salame was in the title. They had us begin by smashing up cookies that were very like graham crackers. George was a champion graham cracker smasher. A role model, really. The head chef had to stop him before he turned the bowl of graham crackers into dust.


Graham cracker smashing in progress. This was before George got a hold of it.

This is then combined with melted butter, egg yolks, sugar, and dark (really, really dark) chocolate cocoa powder. In order to replicate this recipe at home, I think we would have to use dutch-processed cocoa powder. You then roll it up into a a long, skinny, salame shaped roll covered in aluminum foil and put it in the refrigerator while you cook everything else.

Then it was on to the baked caprese salad. I’ve had caprese salad dozens of times, but never baked. They had grilled eggplant slices before we arrived. They had also blanched tomatoes and put an “x” on the bottom to make them easier to peel. We peeled the tomatoes and sliced them into rounds. We sliced the fresh mozzarella and then assembled the parts onto baking pans. First you put down three overlapping slices of eggplant in a triangle, topped by 3 slices of peeled tomato, and then topped by 2 slices of mozzarella. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with dried oregano, salt, and pepper. Bake in oven until cheese is melty. Transfer to dishes and sprinkle with fresh parsley or basil. Oh yeah, and plenty of olive oil.

Ariana showing off our caprese antipasto. It was SO good!

And then there was the main dish – potato gnocchi from scratch. They had cooked the potatoes ahead of time. They said that you should only use red or white potatoes. Yellow potatoes are too sticky. You peel the potatoes and press them through a ricer or food mill. This is a very clever little contraption that reminded me of a big garlic press. It keeps the potatoes from getting too smashed and sticky. Then you add flour and an egg yolk to the potatoes. You gently combine, and then turn your dough out onto a floured surface and work in more flour until you have a nice consistency. (This is where things get vague. You just do what they say until they tell you it is right.)

Then you pinch off handfuls of dough and roll it out into fat pencil shapes. You cut these with a knife into little pillows of potato pasta. Making sure you have enough flour that they don’t stick to each other, you put these on a pan until you’re ready to cook them. Meanwhile you peel some tomatoes, and cook it in olive oil and garlic for about 10 minutes. You boil the gnocchi until they float, remove them from the water and stir them around in the tomato sauce. Result? Light, floaty, delicious gnocchi.

Here we are about to sit down to our home-cooked meal.

Ready to enjoy the fruits of our labors.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for… Here’s why they call it Salame dolce…

This is all kinds of chocolatey goodness. It really looks like salame, doesn't it?

This dessert was absolutely amazing. I’ve never had anything like it. The chocolate flavor was intense. I made this the following week and it turned out really great.

I have recipes for everything we made. I’ll post them separately when I get a minute.