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.