Sauerkraut, Pork, and Mashed Potato Fried Rice

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Another lost in translation version of fried rice, based on some takeout leftovers - the Chinese version of sauerkraut, suan cai, cooked with strips of pork and also the Chinese version of mashed potatoes - tu dou ni, or potato 'mud'. (If you go to a Western restaurant in China, this is how they translate mashed potatoes on the menu but it is a very different dish from the Western version.) Tu dou ni is really, really good, and like a big, loose, greasy potato pancake - mushy on the inside and crispy on the outside. Potatoes are eaten as vegetables more often than as a starch here so it's pretty common to eat them with rice.

I made this by sauteing about one cup of leftover suan cai rou si with a few tablespoons of tu do ni until everything is warm. There is more than enough oil and seasoning in Chinese takeout container sludge that you don't need anything else. Then pile one cup per person of cold cooked rice into your pan and push the other stuff on top. Heat til rice gets crispy and then mix everything together til things are heated through.

And if anyone in Western regions tries this with leftover choucroute garnie and roasted potatoes or leftover latkes, let us know!

Crossing the Bridge Noodles

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Crossing the bridge noodles 过桥米线 (guò qiáo mĭxiàn) is an elaborate chicken noodle soup which hails from the southern province of Yunnan. There are many stories of how the dish originated, but the most common describes a scholar who once isolated himself on an island to prepare for an important examination. His wife would bring him rice noodles and other morsels in a rich chicken broth, with a layer of fat on top to keep the soup warm until she reached him. The soup is perfect for slurping up in cooler weather or during flu season. Locally you can order simple versions for eight to twelve yuan (buck to a buck fifty) or more elaborate versions for up to forty yuan, depending on the number and type of stir-ins.

The server brings you a bowl of bubbling chicken broth along with a separate bowl of cooked rice noodles and many little dishes of stir-ins, which often include raw and cooked chicken, quail eggs, raw fish, white fungus, thinly sliced pork, ham, lettuce and tomato, scallions, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and –best of all - a couple pieces of crispy breaded chicken skin. Some servers will unceremoniously dump the ingredients into the broth as soon as they bring it to you, but many people have their own favourite sequence of stir-ins as they concoct the perfect bowl of soup. I like to start with the eggs, chicken, fish, and mushrooms and make sure they are totally cooked before adding the vegetables and fungus. The noodles always go in last. To those of us who grew up with the idea of chicken noodle soup as soothing home cooking, a bowl of crossing the bridge noodles feels exotic and comforting at the same time.

Sweet Potato and Green Pepper Fried Rice, for Weekend Cookbook Challenge #22

Thursday, November 08, 2007

My current location makes following other blogs much more difficult than in the past, so I haven't been participating in as many events. This months' Weekend Cookbook Challenge, hosted by fellow budget blogger $40 a Week and with an eponymous theme, is my first in a few months. In China, you could eat at nice restaurants several times a day on that budget, but this recipe would also fit the budget back in North America.

Fried rice (chao fan) is a common lunch dish at local homestyle restaurants. Most of the offerings are fried rice versions of more well known dishes - twice cooked pork fried rice (hui guo rou chao fan), kung pao chicken fried rice (gong bao ji ding chao fan), or beef and green pepper fried rice (qing jiao niu rou chao fan). One order usually costs three to six rmb (24 to 48 cents). I am always impressed by how the rice absorbs the strong Sichuan-style flavours from the other ingredients and by the textural contrasts in the best versions. I am also always a bit horrified by the amount of oil rice can soak up and still leave a pool of oil in the bottom of the bowl or takeout container. Lately I've been getting an extra order of rice with my takeout and making my own fried rice with the leftovers or with other things. I like about a half and half ratio of rice and other ingredients.

This fried rice has a lot going on - sweetness and a bit of char from the sweet potatoes, a burn from the peppers (peppers here are similar to mild Hatch chilies) and a bit of funkiness from the chili oil. (The chili oil is the chunky kind which may have peanuts or preserved black beans in it; use other hot sauces if desired.) You can also use a mixture of mild and hot peppers to control the amount of heat.

Cut one small sweet potato into thin slices and then strips. Cut one large or three smaller green peppers and half a small onion into strips as well. Heat two tablespoons of oil over high heat in a large wok or frying pan and cook sweet potatoes until tender. Add green pepper, onions, and half a teaspoon salt and continue to cook until all vegetables are soft. Mix one and a half cups cold cooked rice into vegetables and let sit for a minute or so until rice starts to get crusty. Continue to heat and stir til rice is heated through and stir in one tablespoon chili oil. Mix together, taste for salt, and serve to one or two depending on appetites.

Chao Shou

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Chao shou is a signature Chengdu xiaochi, or snack. This is a basic, classic bowl of chao shou – delicate pork dumplings with a whiff of ginger folded into a hat shapes and floating in a bowl of nearly opaque broth. The broth's whiteness comes from long simmering of bones, and it is often broth that distinguishes a good bowl of chao shou from the lesser versions. On the side is a bowl of plain boiled cabbage and a dish of pao cai, preserved vegetable (cabbage in this case). In cooler weather, chao shou makes a perfect lunch or snack. This being Sichuan, the dumplings often get the spicy treatment and are served with toppings such as stewed chicken pieces (mostly neck and bone), or simply by tossing the cooked dumplings into a pool of aromatic chili oil - hong you chao shou. A bowl of chao shou topped with aromatic stewed beef and cilantro (niu rou chao shou):

Chao shou topped with stewed ribs (pai gu chao shou) was my favourite version until I discovered suan cai chao shouchao shou with sour cabbage. Both suan cai and this particular pao cai are cabbage preserved with salt, chili, and sometimes Sichuan peppercorns, but they are very different in character. Suan cai tastes like it has been preserved much longer - darker, limp shreds that are rather mild in flavour. Pao cai is quite crunchy and tangy. A bowl of suan cai –topped chao shou served with boiled cabbage and a little dish of pao cai is a revelation of the flavours and textures that can be coaxed from this plain Jane vegetable.

Near my house is a little place selling lao ma chao shou, a Chongqing specialty. The ma character means numbing and I am guessing the name refers to the effects of Sichuan pepper. The food of Chongqing is, if anything, even more incendiary and enamored of Sichuan pepper that that of Chengdu. The server warned me that I was ordering something a little spicy but I waved off his concern and received a little bowl of chao shou with cabbage, boiled peanuts, and a topping of scarlet oil. I like the pepper's tingly effect in moderation but don’t enjoy feeling like my mouth and throat are closing up with no feeling. The amount in this bowl of chao shou was definitely in the respiratory arrest category.

Shoe shiners often set up shop beside these little outdoor places to eat and make rounds among the tables, offering potential customers a pair of slippers to wear while they take your shoes to be shined during your lunch.

Calabacita over Croutons

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A little butter and garlic has the power to transform the most humble of foods, like potatoes, into something luxurious. The starring vegetable here is something I never saw back home but my Mexican friends call it calabacita - summer squash that look like ball-shaped zucchini and are similar in texture but have a yellowish flesh. This is something that you can make in a few minutes for one or two people. Since the garlic cooks with both the croutons and the squash you have to take a bit of care not to burn it, but that is the only tricky part.

You need to crush two cloves of garlic and thinly slice half a pound of calabacita, or zucchini, for one person. Melt one and a half tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a wide heavy bottomed frying pan and stir in garlic; heat gently til garlic has lost its sharp taste and has flavoured the butter. Push bits of garlic to sides of the pan and throw in a couple of handfuls cubed bread. (I used dried but you can use fresh. It just takes a bit longer.) Let bread cubes brown and soak up some of the butter. Remove to a bowl when toasty. Add the sliced squash to the pan with a half teaspoon or so of salt and cook just til soft before spooning on top of the croutons.

Dry-Fried Green Beans

Saturday, September 29, 2007

One of my favourite things to order in a Sichuan restaurant is gan bian si ji dou - green beans that have been 'dry-fried' in aromatic oil til their skins are slightly blackened and insides are tender. A plate of these with a bowl of rice and a beer is a perfect late lunch.

A couple tablespoons of ya cai are added just as the beans finish cooking, or are sometimes simply sprinkled on top of the completed dish. Ya cai, chopped celery preserved with salt and sugar, is one of the many varieties of preserved vegetable that are common in Sichuan cuisine. It adds salt, chew, and flavor and is worth seeking out, but if you can't find any just leave it out or use a couple of tablespoons ground pork and extra salt added along with the beans.
Cut a few cloves of garlic into wide slices and do the same with a two inch piece of ginger; cut a couple of dried red chilies in half. The seasonings can be left in bigger chunks because they are just for flavouring the oil. (Some places also use a generous amount of hua jiao, the Sichuan peppercorns, but I am fonder of those in other dishes. Use them if you want.) Trim and cut about a pound of green beans. Heat two to three tablespoons of oil in a large pot or wok until smoking and add garlic, ginger, and red pepper; cook for a half a minute or so until the oil is very fragrant. Add beans to the pan with a shake or two of salt and cook until the beans are charred and juicy. Add two tablespoons ya cai and mix together; turn onto a plate. Serves 2.

Swedish Potato Dumplings

Monday, September 24, 2007

There are many foods that I associate with my grandmother, whom my family lost recently, but none more than potato dumplings. I had these more at my grandparents’ house than at any other place, and we often made them on occasions when a lot of the family was together. I remember helping to make softball sized dumplings when I was little (or maybe they just seemed bigger back then). In my family they inspire the kind of affection only tradition can instill. Pictured are the better-the-next-day version – sliced and fried for breakfast.

Chop about one cup of onion and the same amount of diced bacon or pork. Peel and grate a 2.5 pound bag of potatoes. (There is no point making a small amount. To do this recipe justice you need to make at least a dozen. You want to use starchy, older potatoes.) Start a couple litres of water boiling in a stock pot or large dutch oven. Mix about three and a half cups of flour into the potatoes, or until they make a dough that somewhat holds together.

Form hand-sized patties of dumpling dough on a generously floured surface and put a tablespoon or more each of onion and meat on each patty. Generously shake pepper overtop (also salt if you are using pork and not bacon) and close dough around filling, making sure that none of the filling can leak out and there is no air inside. Your hands will be getting really sticky, and the dough will get wetter and stickier as it sits so you want to form the dumplings quickly and roll them in flour (add more flour if dough gets too soft to work with). Another reason to work quickly is that the flour does not prevent the potatoes from getting brown – this is why you want to chop everything, put the water on, and form and cook the dumplings as soon as possible.

Drop dumplings into boiling water, add a couple tablespoons of salt, wait til water returns to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for an hour. Gently pry dumplings apart if they are sticking together and eat with butter and salt while very fresh and tender, or slice and fry to eat for breakfast the next day with coffee.

The dumpling water is very starchy and flavourful - similar to the bowls of broth, noodle water or vegetable cooking water that 'family style' restaurants in China serve as a beverage - and my mom used to recycle it for soup.

Vegetarian Nachos

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Topping nachos with corn, zucchini, peppers, and celery maximizes brightness, flavour and crunch while keeping the cost down. You can also use leftover carrots, eggplant, or other vegetables on hand as long as they do not have too much moisture. The cheese is, of course, vital - I love using a mixture of mozzarella for its texture with another harder and more pungent cheese for flavour. You can also chop up and cook the vegetables ahead of time so that they are ready for a last minute snack or meal.

Chop up one red pepper, half a large red onion, two to three skinny stalks of celery with leaves, one small zucchini or half a calabacita, and have ready one cup of corn kernels. Heat a small amount of oil in a wok or heavy bottomed pan over medium high heat and add the onions, then the corn, then the peppers, and finally the squash with 1-2 teaspoons of salt. The vegetables should be heated through but not cooked limp, and you will have a lot - we are talking about four cups of cooked vegetables for a normal, 365 g bag of tortilla chips. The celery should be left raw. Chop up a hot green pepper and mince some of the red onion for garnish, if desired. Lay out a single layer of chips on a baking sheet and spread cooked vegetables and chopped celery over them. Add 2/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar or other strongly flavoured cheese and top with about 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella. Bake or broil til there are browned spots on the cheese and chips. Pile nachos into a bowl and garnish with chopped hot pepper and chopped onion, if desired.

Spicy Cucumber Salad

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Cucumbers are very refreshing when it is really hot, and here in Sichuan spicy foods are seen as a source of relief from the humidity. Most spicy cucumber salad recipes that I run into are very sweet, and I wanted to get away from sweetness and make a salad that was clean, sharp, and spicy. A Uighur restaurant in town serves a little plate of something very similar with their zhua fan dish of rice cooked with lamb and vegetables. A few spoons of this also goes well with dishes that are rich and mild like fried rice or noodles. I ate the ones pictured with a beer, which was also perfect.

The ground red pepper I am using is quite coarse, very like Korean gochu karu. Here in China it is very fragrant and mixed with sesame seeds. Slice one med English cucumber or two smaller ones into slices and salt them; let the slices stand for a few hours to drain. To the cucumber slices add three tablespoons of white vinegar (can use cider or rice vinegar, but use a bit more) and one teaspoon of coarse ground red pepper or cayenne, or more to taste. Slice a mild to medium red pepper into small pieces and toss the mixture together. (I don’t recommend using the very hot bird’s eye or Hunan peppers unless you are a serious chili head.) Store in the fridge for a few hours for flavours to blend; keeps for a few days.


Friday, August 03, 2007

Jiaozi are small filled dumplings that can be eaten at any time of day and are usually served boiled. Sometimes they are steamed or fried. Like many kinds of noodles here, they are usually sold by weight. Two liang is a good sized serving; order three if you are really hungry. My favourite is egg jiaozi, filled with seasoned egg and chives. Most are filled with pork and something else – chives, bok choi, or mushrooms. Two liang cost three to six kuai (forty five to ninety cents), depending on how nice the filling is. You will always get soy sauce and black vinegar for dipping, and often chili oil as well.

The snack restaurants also sell little bowls of pork jiaozi that come already doused in sweet, garlicky chili oil. They are great as well.

Onion Rings

Monday, July 16, 2007

Deep frying is something I seldom do at home - maybe once or twice a year. For these onion rings, I used beer for the batter and added some Tabasco sauce and salt for flavour. I cooked them in corn oil in a pan that had been used to fry several batches of hamburgers. I would have liked to fry them in beef fat, but wasn't sure how to go about finding and rendering beef fat in China so using the drippings from the hamburgers was the next best thing. They were amazing with ketchup.

Mix together 3/4 cup beer with 3/4 cup flour. Mix in one tablespoon of Tabasco sauce and one teaspoon of salt. Slice three medium onions into 1 cm slices and separate into rings. Meanwhile, heat oil til a drop of batter sizzles when dropped in. Coat onion rings in batter and drop into oil in one layer, turning once, til the onion rings are brown. Eat while hot.

Potato and Green Vegetable Stew

Sunday, July 01, 2007

This stew began as another recipe, stopped before the last step – it was going to be a version of the spinach soup, but using xue pi cai instead of spinach. (The name of the plant means ‘snow skin vegetable’ and I know I have seen it back home but could not find an English name; it has many leaves radiating out of a base with pale stems and dark green leaves.)

I was trying to make the soup with my last ¾ cup of chicken broth, making it very thick. When I lifted the lid to check the greens just before blending, the potatoes and greens looked and smelled so good just like they were that it suddenly seemed like a waste to use and clean the blender.

Rough knife work aside, the stew was amazing just like this, and reminded me of how good vegetable stews can be in the summer. They come together much more quickly than meat based stews which often need long, slow simmering. They are often better served closer to room temperature, rather than hot. They are full of the flavour of summer without being heavy.

For this one, dice one small onion and four cloves of garlic (less if you want) and sweat with a little oil and salt over med heat until tender. Add ¾ cup chicken broth and two medium diced potatoes, cover and boil til potatoes are tender, adding more liquid if necessary. Meanwhile, chop one and a half cups of sturdy greens like bok choi or Shanghai bok choi. Add to the pot for a couple of minutes until the greens are tender. Salt to taste and serve to one as main course or side for two.

Stir Fried Greens and Bacon over Grits

The variety of foodstuffs available in China is glorious and bewildering at the same time. Two more familiar things I am glad are available here are bacon and butter. The bacon here is very dense and does not shrink much when cooked, a quality I have come to appreciate. This dish relies on the contrast between chewy pieces of bacon, juicy cooked greens, and soft grits. It takes a little planning ahead to make the grits but the combination has a very high return of satisfaction for a little cooking effort, and the colours are very appealing.

Slice about half a cup small pieces of bacon. Saute bacon til fat is mostly rendered and add 3 cups chopped Shanghai bok choi to the pan (can use any sturdy green like chard or cabbage). When greens are wilted but not limp remove from pan and drizzle with a tablespoon of vinegar (I used black). Serve over grits. Serves 2.

Butter and Black Vinegar

Friday, June 15, 2007

These made-in-China butter tarts gain a bit in translation – a sharpening shot of black vinegar. A passage from Nellie McClung I was reading a few months ago reminded me that people used to make pies out of not much more than vinegar, sugar, and eggs. I do love a tart element in pastry, though often this comes from fruit – lemon, lime, apples, or raspberries. I made these on a day when I was feeling some angst about my approaching return to Canada. The bitter walnuts and coarse deep brown sugar (here called hong tang, or red sugar) complete a dark twist on the sweet, basic, and quintessentially Canadian butter tart recipe.

The tarts were very well received when I served them, though the pastry I used was much too rich. You can use your own or bought tart shells. These work best as mini tarts and go great with coffee or a glass of milk.

Beat together two eggs, 1 cup dark brown sugar, ½ cup corn syrup, 1 tbs black vinegar, ¼ cup melted butter, 1 tsp vanilla. Put a walnut half (about 30 total) in each of about two and a half dozen mini tart shells and spoon filling into the shells. Bake in a 400 degree oven til pastry is browned and filling is just set, about eight minutes.

San Da Pao (Three Big Cannons)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

This sweet snack usually turns up during local events or near attractions like Wen Shu Yuan (a temple just to the north east of downtown Chengdu). They are three balls of sweetened sticky rice thrown against a metal tray filled with ground sesame and toasted soy. Each ball makes a loud boom against the tray, hence the name. The vendor then douses them in a sweet syrup and hands you your treat.

You can find them on Jinli Street, which has an area where you can buy traditional snacks. There are English signs with at times alarmingly literal translations, and I think these are called Three Big Guns.

Vendor throwing the rice balls against the tray:


Sunday, June 03, 2007

This combination of rice and vegetables cooked in chicken stock is comforting, full flavoured, and perfect for when you are under the weather. I have no idea how authentic this version is; I made it from memory after watching someone else. The secret is to use a really good chicken stock.

Saute 1 cup of rice in a little oil or butter in a thick bottomed pot until rice is toasty. Add one chopped tomato and one cup of diced zucchini or other summer squash. Cook for a few minutes until vegetables are warmed through and then add one and a half cups of chicken or vegetable stock and a teaspoon of salt, depending on how salty your broth is. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for a few minutes until liquid is absorbed. I like it pretty dry, but you could add more broth or water if you prefer a soupier mixture.

La Mian (Hand Pulled Noodles)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

La mian is usually found in the Hui (Muslim) restaurants, which offer dishes quite different than the regular Chinese fare with its emphasis on pork. La mian is not technically street food, though many noodle makers are working practically on the sidewalk and can be found in most neighborhoods here in Chengdu.

The noodles are pulled into strands and thrown into a pot where they cook quickly, then are served in a beef broth and topped with a few slices of radish, sliced beef or lamb, and chopped scallions and cilantro on top with a slick of chili oil. The best places have broth with a rich beef flavour and a good jolt of garlic. If you've ordered a fried rice or noodle plate you will get a cup of the broth to drink.The noodles have a fantastic bite to them and go for three to five yuan for a bowl, about forty to seventy cents.

Watermelon and Tofu Salad with Mint

Saturday, May 19, 2007

I glumly mixed this salad together, mentally comparing the flavour void of tofu with the salty sharpness of the feta that I would be using to make a watermelon salad back home. (Note: if you really love cheese, don't move to China.) What got my attention about this salad was the texture - the cool, smooth tofu was really nice against the crispness of the watermelon. I am normally very partial to stronger flavours but this was a very satisfying lunch on a hot day, and would be great served with something spicy. I have also tried tofu with other fruits, like the loquats that are so fabulous now here, but watermelon is my favourite so far.

Per person, dice about 1 1/2 cups of watermelon and 2/3 cup tofu. Julienne about 1 tbsp of mint and toss very carefully so the cubes stay nice and square. Other fresh herbs would work really well too, like basil or dill.

Roasted Eggplant, Tomato, and Red Pepper Dip

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Recently I tried a recipe billed as a pureed eggplant salad. It was very well received but I thought it needed work – the recipe contained bread, which gave the end product an odd texture and I thought dulled the flavours too much. It also called for some raw and some cooked vegetables. For the FC version I ended up roasting all the vegetables and getting rid of the bread, and the result was a very creamy and rich tasting dip brightened with roasted red pepper and tangy pieces of tomato. A slow grill would be fantastic for preparing the vegetables too; the idea is to roast as much moisture as possible out of them while concentrating their flavour.

Take two whole Asian or one split medium Italian eggplant, two whole medium tomatoes, and one large or two small whole red peppers and roast for 30 to 40 minutes in a medium oven until vegetables are soft and blackened. Meanwhile, chop two cloves of raw garlic and blend with 1/3 cup lemon juice, 1/3 cup olive oil and ½ tsp of salt til garlic is completely pureed. Scrape the roasted eggplant out of its skin and add to blender; blend until creamy. Remove the skins from the peppers and dice finely; finely dice tomato as well. (My tomatoes and peppers still had quite a bit of moisture so I reduced them in a thick bottomed pan before stirring into the eggplant.) Add chopped peppers and tomatoes to eggplant and stir to distribute evenly. Let sit at least a couple of hours; best next day. Taste for flavour balance before serving. My batch made slightly more than one cup of dip.

The dip is really good with raw vegetables or with bread. Shown is Xinjiang nan bread, which costs 1-2 yuan (15-30 cents) for an eight to twelve inch round and makes pretty good pizza crust. Xinjiang (the Uighur Autonomous Region) is a northwestern province and home to one of the most trendy regional Chinese cuisines. Xinjiang food, like Tibetan food, is easy to find in Chengdu since we are also in the west.

Cold Marinated Buckwheat Noodles

Sunday, May 06, 2007

My plans to cook stewed and roasted things evaporated in this week’s shimmering heat, and I searched for something to make that was cool but filling and energizing. The liang fen (cool seasoned bean starch noodles) from the street vendors are more like lukewarm fen right now. (I did make a fantastic mango lassi with dead ripe mangoes, sweet plain yogurt, and a little lemon juice, salt, and honey.)

This cold buckwheat noodle dish is adapted from a chowhound post. I was filled with doubt when making the recipe; it didn’t seem right. It turned out fantastic though and is a great make ahead, packable lunch. With two sliced hard boiled eggs and one cucumber (or more if desired) it would feed two generously, or three smaller appetites.

Mix together marinade: 3 tbs soy sauce, 3 tbs black vinegar, 5 tbs chicken or mushroom stock, 1 tbs dark sesame oil, 1 tbs sugar, 1 tbs prepared mustard (I used French’s). Stir til sugar is dissolved. Cook half a pound of thin buckwheat noodles just til al dente, drain, and stir hot noodles into the marinade. (It may seem soupy and not right, and the starch from the noodles will make the marinade cloudy. Don’t worry.) Cover the container and put in the fridge for at least two hours. During this time the noodles will soak up the marinade and get softer. Garnish with cucumber and sliced hard boiled egg.

Candid morning fridge shot

This is in response to Sam's post. Not many of us look our best first thing in the morning, especially when the morning is several hours after a very excellent party. The fridge is about five cubic feet which I think is average for China, and is shared with my roommate. We hosted a jiaozi making party last night. The dumpling skins were bought for next to nothing at the grocery store and I lost count of all the fillings we used - egg (our favourite), beef, 'three treasure' with pork, shrimp, and mushroom; vegetarian...maybe others. We steamed some and deep fried others, and ate them with black vinegar, chili garlic sauce, soy sauce, and stir fried kong xin cai.

The fridge is crammed with leftover jiaozi ingredients, soy and dairy milk, New Zealand butter, Sichuan style bacon, and various vegetables. Watermelon, Chinese Snow brand beer, and yoghurt comprise our cooling agents, very necessary in this 30 degree weather. There is also a little bottle of chipotle salsa and a bag of rotini from the import section of the grocery store.

Dou hua (‘flower’ tofu)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Dou hua is soft, warm tofu covered with toppings that add crunch and flavour. A dou hua vendor usually carries a pole across his or her shoulders with two large baskets attached. One of the baskets contains steaming soft tofu and the other contains the bowls and fixings.

For a while I had avoided dou hua due to a mouth numbing, terrible version I’d bought on Dian Nao Cheng (Computer Street.) One my way home the other day, though, I noticed one lady untraditionally carrying dou hua baskets on her bike and paying obvious attention to both the order and appearance of the condiments. First, she spooned up the tofu and added some ground Sichuan pepper. Then, a sprinkle of msg. Then a tablespoon or so of soy sauce, then chili oil, then chopped preserved vegetable, then crunchy dried soybeans, and last of all chopped green onion. We customers accepted the bowl, then stirred everything up and ate. She was only charging one yuan (15 cents) per order, when some vendors charge one and a half.

Cream of Amaranth Soup

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Amaranth is another vegetable that I noticed for the first time at my local market without being able to identify it. Thanks to the posts at Mahanandi I did not remain in the dark for long - check out the fantastic JFI roundup there. In Mandarin it is called hong xian cai but my market vendors, most of whom speak Sichuan dialect, all seem to call it hong han cai.

I found amaranth a bit difficult to cook - it tastes and behaves a lot like spinach, wilting quickly and losing a lot of volume. It also bleeds and stains everything red. I made an amaranth omelet that tasted wonderful but looked really odd. My favourite way to cook it so far is a simple and restorative vegetable soup that does not mind being pink.

Mince half a small onion and one clove of garlic, and half a red pepper and sweat with salt in a small sauce pan until vegetables are tender but not browned. (Can use other vegetables based on what you have on hand.) Add one and a half cups of chicken or vegetable broth and simmer for a few minutes. Stir in one and a half cups chopped amaranth and heat til vegetable is wilted; then stir in three tablespoons of cream. You can omit the cream if desired for an even more basic soup. This should fill up one person or serve two as first or last course.

Kong Xin Cai (Water Spinach), for JFI - Green Leafy Vegetables

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ever since learning the theme of this JFI I have been looking forward to joining in. Many have the view that eating healthy or eating a good vegetarian diet is difficult or expensive, but I find that fresh greens are great value and take no time at all to cook. Washed greens in the fridge are my favourite convenience food. I have never been a green salad person, but love to chop greens and stir them into soups, use them as a bed for Eggs Cooked on Top of Things, or give them a quick stir fry for eating on top of rice, grits, or noodles.

This odd, long-leafed plant at my local market was a mystery until I saw some vendors selling piles of it already trimmed and chopped. The hollow stems gave it away - kong xin cai means hollow heart vegetable. I had actually eaten this before and liked it very much but had never seen its natural form. A preparation I enjoy very much is to stir fry with shrimp paste, but I didn't have shrimp paste on hand so used a smoky bacon to get some salt and depth. If you don't want to use bacon you can heat half a tablespoon of crushed garlic in 1-2 tbs of oil til garlic is soft, then add the vegetable and a little salt. Other greens such as chard or kale would also be delicious cooked this way.

Take 1-2 tablespoons of diced bacon and cook over high heat til fat is rendered and bacon is crisp. Add two cups of chopped kong xin cai and stir fry over high heat for just a few seconds til stems are tender and leaves are wilted. Drizzle with black or balsamic vinegar. This feeds one person as a meal or two as a side dish.

Cold Grits with Milk

Saturday, April 28, 2007
Currently I am having a where-have-you-been-all-my-life moment with the very coarsely ground dried corn that some know as grits and some call polenta. Although I use the same basic recipe as polenta, grits have two qualities that I wanted to highlight in their own post - first, their amazing texture when cooked; second, they love to be prepared in the rice cooker.

Use a 1:4 ratio of grits to water with some salt in your rice cooker, and let them sit for two hours on the keep-warm or congee setting after cooking. My favourite way to eat them right now is cold with milk and dark brown sugar for breakfast.

Shao Bing

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Shao bing are small flatbreads that the vendor rolls out with either a little sugar or chili paste inside and usually sesame on the outside. They are freshly baked in a hollow oven, a kind of portable tandoor. The oven makes them crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and they are a perfect bite in the mornings or in colder weather. My neighborhood shao bing vendor sets up shop in the mornings only, but around busier areas of Chengdu like Chun Xi road you can find shao bing all day.

Some street foods can be fantastic from one vendor and inedible from another, but shao bing are among the most consistently good sidewalk snacks as long as they are fresh. The vendor asks ji ge, how many, and if you want tian de (sweet) or xian de (savoury). I love both kinds. They cost half a yuan, or about eight cents each.

Street Food Smarts

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Should food be cooked and sold out in the open, where the people are? Just today two articles crossed my screen. One is from Toronto, whose street food scene has been smothered inside a bun, so to speak, by a law that may now change. (See Food for Thought post for article and more links.) The other is a very thoughtful piece from the Times on how the chaat in Delhi is moving off the street and possibly losing its soul.

Chengdu has one of the most active and colourful street food scenes I’ve ever enjoyed. Its main initial attraction for me, besides the low cost, was that street food is some of the most accessible through a language barrier - you can see what is available without having to puzzle through a menu and you can order and pay with hand signals. I eat street food almost daily and feel like I’ve only begun learning about it.

Many foreigners living here, however, eschew street food entirely. Some do this out of caution and some due to painful past experiences. Many local people also avoid it, mentioning the lack of hygiene. For some years I worked in restaurant kitchens and am all too aware that street food can’t comply with most of our food prep safety standards; two major challenges are lack of refrigeration and lack of a ready source of water for washing. Still, I can’t bring myself to write off all street food entirely – it is too good and too cheap.

Keeping an eye on the popular stalls is one of the most basic ways of finding safe street food. You can find the good vendors, see what people are ordering, and observe how they are eating it. By watching the food being prepared you can also see if the cook cares about what they are doing or not. A good cook has been recognizable in any country I have been in so far - they should move with a kind of attentive confidence, even when working very quickly.

A cook’s attention to hygiene, or lack thereof, is also pretty easy to gauge. So I avoid the stalls where the vendor has his hands jammed into his pockets or is rubbing his hand across his face in thirty degree weather. The vendor who has stacked up several dozen cooked items in the heat of the afternoon also gets a pass. I look for the stall with clean, organized equipment and oil that looks and smells fresh. I look at the ingredients carefully and sniff them if I can, and hold my hand above the food items to feel if they are still hot. Compared to sitting down in a nice clean inspected restaurant this is unquestionably still a risk, but so far I have avoided being sick and some of my favourite foods here have been bought and eaten on the street.

Starting this weekend, Frugal Cuisine will have posts on Chengdu snacks and street food along with the recipes. It fits the frugal theme and will break up the routine a bit, since I no longer have books to review. Hope everyone enjoys the new feature.

Rice Cake

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rice cake is called dok in Korean and nian gao in Mandarin. The savoury kind is formed into small tubes or ovals and sold either frozen or vacuum packed in the fridge section. It is used in soups, stir fries and a fiery, brick coloured Korean street food called dok-bokki (fried dok). There is an enormous variety of Korean sweet rice cake confections as well, some quite rustic and some astoundingly beautiful and delicate. A sweet Chinese nian gao (sometimes labeled 'rice pudding') is traditional at New Year's.

I love all of it, but have never tried cooking rice cake before though I adore the chewy, melting texture and how it soaks up flavours from its companion ingredients. My curiosity finally got the better of me and I picked up a package of chili oil marinated rice cake from the market that actually had English instructions. Now, I am almost sure the instructions were, well, not really correct. Chinese stir fried nian gao is usually fried like chao mian (fried noodles) - first cook your meat and vegetables and then add the starch and cook til everything is heated through and the flavours are absorbed without cooking long enough to ruin the texture of the rice cake. (Some types of rice cake need soaking in water for several minutes to soften before cooking.)

My package just said to heat oil in a wok, add the rice cake, and fry on high heat for six or seven minutes til done. Not having meat or vegetables in the house anyway, I followed the instructions to the letter and got this amazing, crispy on the outside, melting on the inside, full of flavour rice cake. Because it had been marinated in the chili oil, it didn't even need salt or seasoning and was much too good not to blog. The same method is fantastic for the sweet Chinese rice cake - heat a little oil, slice the sweet rice cake into small pieces a little less than half an inch thick, and fry on both sides until it has a crispy crust and melting centre. You need to eat it quite warm; rice cake loses appeal very quickly as it cools.

New This Season

One of the great things about living in a different country is being surprised by whatever is newly in season. These yin tao (cherries) started appearing on Chengdu streets about a week ago. The first ones were so small I thought they were a new kind of berry but now larger ones are turning up. They have firm flesh and a small pit, and are very tangy and sweet.

Everyone calls the little rough fruits plums, though I am not sure how they are related. They have a deeper flavour - some are very good but others I've bought were quite sour and I am still figuring out how to find good ones. They also have a pit.

Jiaozi Soup

Sunday, April 01, 2007

This vegetable based soup comes together quickly and is a great way to stretch your supply of jiaozi. Jiaozi are Chinese dumplings, usually stuffed with meat and some kind of vegetable. Korean mandu would be great eaten this way too. Jiaozi are fantastic things to have in the freezer, whether you make them or buy them. I love jiaozi eaten traditionally, boiled and dipped in black vinegar and sesame or chili oil, but they feel more familiar this way.

The correct stage to add the greens to the soup depends on what vegetable you are using. I added the you cai shown after the potatoes were cooked. For something more delicate like spinach or watercress, wait until the jiaozi are cooked before adding the green so that it just wilts without getting slimy or losing its colour. On the other hand, if you have something sturdier like cabbage or kale add it earler, just after the onions, and decrease the amount by a third or so.

Chop a tablespoon of garlic (or less, or none) and two tablespoons of onion and sweat in a saucepan with some oil and salt until tender but not browned. Add three cups of water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, peel and cube one large potato and add to the boiling water. After potato is cooked, taste broth for salt. (You want it salty enough to flavour the jiaozi, and the potatoes will have absorbed some while cooking.) Add two cups chopped leafy greens, bring soup to a boil, then add six to eight fresh or frozen jiaozi and simmer until dumplings are cooked through. Serves 2.

Canola as Vegetable

Saturday, March 24, 2007
Back in Canada I knew my way around a grocery store blind, but living in China is like being on another culinary planet - I can hardly identify many of the products, or read much of their labels. Many things I do recognize are used in completely new ways. Grape tomatoes, for example, are a fruit - they decorate pastries and take dips in chocolate fountains. This plant is another example. I was looking for a green vegetable and bought a rag-leafed plant called you cai, or oil vegetable. This ended up being nothing more than canola, which we grow great huge fields of at home with the sole purpose of harvesting it for oil. Here it is eaten just as it buds, and is my new favourite green - lots of flavour without being overly bitter or grassy. I like it more than spinach, raw or cooked.

Dumplings for Biscuit Mix Day

Wednesday, March 14, 2007
The superb Mimi has a biscuit mix event going on and this is my entry. Dumplings cooked on top of stew or soup are very comforting and I love the economy of cooking them in the same pot and burner as your main course. They are very fast to make if you have the mix on hand. I made these to eat with a feeling-better chicken soup that I've been eating over the past few days.

Start the stew heating, and measure biscuit mix - I use 2/3 cup per person, or less if the stew is full of starchy things like potatoes. Sprinkle with milk, by the tablespoon, until you have a soft dough, and if desired add some seasoning that will go with your stew. (You could add some sharp cheese if you are making the lentil and tomato soup.) Drop by tablespoons on the hot surface, without crowding. Cover well, preferably with a glass lid to watch, and cook for about twelve minutes until dumplings are cooked through and fluffy - they need the lid left on during cooking time to rise.

Kidney Bean Sandwich Spread

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

When I was taking Home Ec. in junior high back in Fairview, Alberta one of the most memorable cooking projects was a sandwich day. We made a sandwich filling out of carrots, peanut butter, and raisins and another out of mashed kidney beans, mayonnaise, and chopped onion. This is a leaner version of the kidney bean sandwich, sharpened with cumin. I also like using it as a dip with crackers.

Mash one 14 oz can of red kidney beans and stir in one tablespoon minced onion, half a teaspoon toasted ground cumin, and salt to taste (the beans might have been canned with enough salt already). Use as a sandwich filling or dip with crackers or chips. Better the next day.

The carrot salad shown is from a Food TV blog. I love this salad - brightness, tang, crunch. Both these recipes you can make on Sunday night and eat for the next couple of days.

Noodles with Eggs and Peanut-Chili Oil (or Salsa!)

Saturday, March 03, 2007

When I was planning this post I realized I was doing three peanut featuring recipes in a row, and then veggie paparazzo reminded me that many people can't handle peanuts. So for the peanut avoiding, I am presenting an equally tasty alternative topping - salsa. If you have salsa made or in a jar, this takes five minutes to prepare.

Frugal Cuisine is nearly a year old and, in reading my previous posts for the label updates I was a little embarassed to see the chili oil recipe - it is hot, but has nowhere near the complexity of bought Asian chili oils. So ignore the advice in that post and go out and buy some. The kind I am using is dark red with plenty of chilies, peanuts, the occasional preserved black bean, and other great stuff in it.

This recipe also features the Wonder Bread of the noodle world - flat white Chinese wheat noodles. I am using the carbonara-like technique of stirring an egg into just cooked noodles to make a sauce, and then topping them with something more flavourful.

The salsa for the peanut free option is minced onion, tomato, and hot green pepper with salt and lemon juice. I'm not giving amounts since it is strictly taste as you go. We have really great grape tomatoes here, sold in the fruit section, so I used those for the salsa.

Boil flat white noodles or linguine in a lot of salted water until nearly tender, then drain. ( I use a portion of noodles about one quarter in diameter per person.) Stir one egg per person and continue stirring over lowered heat until the egg cooks into a thick sauce. (Keep the eggs in motion as they heat - you don't want the protein to cook into chunks.) Turn noodles into a plate or bowl and top with chili oil or salsa. Mix up and eat.

Peanut Butter Cookies

Saturday, February 24, 2007

This has got to be the most ubiquitous cookie recipe in the world - equal parts peanut butter and sugar with an egg mixed in. It's on the Kr*ft peanut butter jars, if I remember correctly. This is with good reason though - it is easy, gluten free, and very, very good. The only tricky part is that the cookies are very tender when just baked, so they require careful handling to remove from the pan. I am using crunchy peanut butter, dark brown sugar, and some chopped up caramel and chocolate candy since I like some texture in the cookies. The post has a breakfast tag because I used to have one or two of these in the morning with a glass of soy milk before walking through Edmonton's river valley to work.

Mix together one cup of peanut butter and one cup of dark brown sugar with one large egg til blended. Chop up a handful of R*lo or similar candies and mix in to the batter if desired. Drop by teaspoons on ungreased baking sheet and flatten slightly. Bake at 325 deg F for ten to twelve minutes; makes about twenty cookies.

Sausage and Root Vegetable Soup with Peanut Butter

Monday, February 19, 2007

Moving to China has led to discovering lots of new foods, and recently I was given some local charcuterie including the cured sausage that many people have hanging in their windows this time of year. It was coarse textured and seasoned with the distinctive 麻辣 (ma2la4, hot and numbing) quality of Sichuan pepper. Cured meats are more often a luxury than frugal, but I like using them in small amounts as flavouring. For this soup you can use any strongly flavoured cured sausage, like a cured Italian sausage or Spanish style choriz0 (not the raw kind), preferably with a lot of fat in it. Or that leftover chunk of salami.

Sweet potatoes are a great foil for the heat and richness of the meat. I added taro, but only because the last regular potatoes I cooked here turned to mush and I wanted something that would hold texture. Carrots, turnips, parsnips, or other similar vegetables would also work well.

Finely mince a six inch piece of dry sausage (about one inch in diameter) and four cloves of garlic. Chop half a large onion and three leafy stalks of celery and fry together in a large wide bottomed pot such as a Dutch oven. (In a chili-head mood, I would have add a minced hot pepper to the vegetables.) When these are tender add four cups of water and three cups sweet potato and taro or other root vegetables peeled and chopped into half inch dice, cover, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes or so until root vegetables are tender. Stir in two tablespoons of peanut butter til smooth and taste for seasoning – this will really depend on how much salt and seasoning were in the meat. Serves four, best next day.

For the picture I borrowed a friend's camera - thanks, E! With the sausage I also received a smoked pig’s tail, and am figuring out what to do with it. Please leave suggestions in comments…a cross section reveals that there is not a lot of meat on the sucker.

Pigs in Blankets

Tuesday, February 13, 2007
For now, I am without electronic eyes - I foolishly left my camera on the taxi and hope is fading that I will be able to recover it. I'll add a picture next time I make these little treats; feast your eyes on these meanwhile. Pigs in blankets are not much work if you have baking mix on hand, and not much more from scratch. The crescent roll approach is really popular but not really frugal. This recipe makes 20-24, which was a perfect sized batch for the toaster oven.

Take one and 1/4 cup of biscuit mix (or work together one cup of flour, five tablespoons of butter or shortening, and one tsp of baking powder) and mix in a bowl with enough milk to make a rollable dough. Start with 1/3 cup of milk and add more if dough is too stiff. Knead dough about four times and let sit for an hour, then roll out on a floured surfact to a thickness of about 1/6 inch. Open a package of 24 cocktail franks or weiners cut in half and wrap them in blankets of biscuit dough about two inches by one inch. Arrange seam side down on oiled baking sheet (you can make ahead to this point, then cover well and chill up to one day). Cook at 375 deg F for about 15 minutes til pigs are warmed through and blankets are toasty. Try to make them shortly before eating, since they are amazing warm. Serve with mustard.

Celery with Noodles

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

After moving I came down with a bad cold and wanted something easy to make, comforting, and restorative. This bowl contains three things: celery, chicken stock, and noodles. Celery I like to buy in sticks rather than bunches because I can pick out the inner stalks and leafy pieces where most of the flavour hides. The chicken stock should be quite concentrated, giving the dish its body. (Note to all the worried people who find this blog by googling: should chicken stock be jelly? YES, it should, this is from the bones.) The noodles are dried, flat, white Chinese wheat noodles. They cook quickly and get soggy quickly, and I was not impressed with them until I started cooking them directly in soups and strongly flavoured sauces - they absorb a lot of character from the cooking liquid. Egg noodles would work well too.

Chop celery, mostly inner stalks and leaves, finely across the grain (don't worry much about shape, they cook enough to break down) til you have two cups chopped celery. Sweat over medium heat in a large saucepan with a pinch of salt til tender. Add three cups chicken stock and boil til celery is falling apart and the stock is reduced by about a quarter. You should have quite a bit of liquid still in the pan. Take a portion of noodles (about a dime's circumference) and break into thirds if desired. Add noodles to the pan and boil til they are tender, watching to make sure they don't stick together and adding hot water or more stock if the mixture gets too dry. Serves one sick person.