New Year, New Look, New Focus

Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Whew, renos are nearly done - hope you enjoy the new space as much as I do! To all regular readers (especially those who have been with me long enough to remember the last major overhaul), thank you for your continued attention and support.

There will be a few other changes to Frugal Cuisine as well. Over the past two years I've been posting occasionally here about Chinese snacks and street food. I find my local food scene very interesting and still want to write about it, but these posts will now be appearing on a spinoff blog. FC will go back to focusing completely on cooking, but will include more cooking for company, since many people are doing more entertaining and cooking at home now. This also means I'm no longer staying strictly within the $3 per day per person budget - it's not what the majority of my readers require, and has gotten a bit too restrictive with the price increases over the past year.

January is always the busiest time of year for FC and is also the holiday time here, so I am looking forward to lots of home cooking and posting! Hope you all are too.

Lentils and Cabbage

Thursday, December 25, 2008

My kitchen is not in a heated area of my house, so since it has been cold I tend to dash in, cook, and dash out again. This mess of cabbage and lentils came together in 20 minutes and tasted fantastic.

A more elaborate (and healthier) recipe from NYT was the inspiration - the cabbage and lentils sounded amazing together, but I wanted a quicker recipe and decided to use Sichuan hot and numbing sausage (麻辣香肠) or bacon for flavour and canned lentils. The drawback for using canned was that it is not easy to control the salt - between the sausage/bacon and salted lentils, this got a bit more salty than strictly necessary even without adding any. I'd probably make the lentils from scratch next time, or drain some canning liquid and just add water. You need the firmer, brown or green lentils.

Slice about eight loonie sized coins of sausage (can use any dry, spicy sausage) OR dice one strip of thick bacon and saute til the fat is rendered and the pieces are starting to get crispy. Use your knife to shred four cups of cabbage and add it to the pan, adding a little oil only if your pan is too dry. Saute the cabbage til just wilted and add one 14 oz can of lentils, including the liquid, and let everything bubble together for a few minutes until flavours are combined. It should be soupy, so add water if required.

The first time I made this with dumplings steamed on top made from biscuit mix and a little milk - outstanding. The second time I ate it with home fries. Recipe is enough for two; if you are increasing quantities, don't increase the meat proportionally - it is a seasoning. 2 more 'coins' per person is lots.

Garlic Mushroom Greens over Roasted Potatoes

Monday, December 08, 2008

One sweltering summer evening I watched a young couple in a restaurant order and share a single plate of kong xin cai, stir fried with garlic. What a perfect dinner, I thought. This is the same idea, fortified a bit with potatoes for winter. When I lived in Canada and used to come home and need to eat in a hurry, I would slice a potato and layer it on a baking sheet, drizzle with butter, and broil the thing while I fried an egg or made a salad to go with it. Everything would be ready in a couple of minutes. In China it is easy to buy tiny round potatoes, already cleaned and ready for roasting. You just need a little oil (or some other fat) and salt, and I often toss in a few cloves of garlic to roast alongside.

Toss one pound of potatoes, either small or cut into small cubes or slices for roasting, with a tablespoon of fat such as melted butter or other oil (I am using beef fat, which is half the price of butter and is readily available at the farmer's market here since many styles of Sichuan hot pot float a layer of beef fat on top of the spicy broth.) Add some salt to taste; if you are using melted bacon fat you won't need much salt). Lay potatoes in a baking pan or dish and roast or broil at high heat Watch carefully; you want them a little browned but not burned.

While potatoes are cooking slice three or four large mushrooms and chop half a pound of chard or shanghai bok choy. Mince three cloves of garlic (or less if you like). When potatoes are nearly ready heat two tablespoons of oil over high heat in a frying pan, add garlic and mushrooms, and when they are really sizzling add greens. Cook them til they are pretty soft, a bit past the normal al dente stir fry. Pile the potatoes on two plates and spoon greens overtop, letting the potatoes soak up the garlicky juice from the greens.

Dan Hong Gao (Mini filled crepes)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

This is one of my favourite street foods. The vendor keeps two small metal pans going, and customers line up and choose their fillings. (These little snacks don't score very high on the Street Food Safety Index, however. I look for a clean cart and ingredients that are not all mixed up with each other, plus a batter with beautiful yellow colour from lots of eggs.)

The little filled crepes are completely fresh and tender and just a few bites each.

You can choose any mixture of sweet or savoury fillings. I like to mix up shredded potato and ya cai, and my favourite is peanut butter with one of the jams. Once the word 'tomato' somehow came out of my mouth instead of strawberry, so I ended up with peanut butter and ketchup. Ick!

SOS Cuisine

Thursday, November 13, 2008
The Food Value section on my sidebar has a new link: SOS Cuisine, a service that helps you plan one week's shopping and cooking for weeknight dinners. When I lived in Canada I used to spend an hour or so each week going to the websites of our local grocery chains to see what was on special, scrolling through multi page pdf documents and thinking that some central website should be doing this for me. SOS Cuisine does even more, planning a menu complete with prep time and nutrition information and calculating the cost for the number of people for whom you cook. You can choose menu preferences such as budget, low calorie, and exclude certain foods. The site tracks what is on special at local supermarkets and chooses what recipes would be most economical to make each week. The weekly meal plans that I've seen so far are based on an hour or so advance prep time, and then when mealtime comes around it is usually twenty minutes or less to get dinner on the table.

It's not perfect - the local specials information is based where the service originated (Quebec), and most of the users are francophones. So even though there is a complete English version of the website, it's tough for the French challenged to benefit from the recipe reviews. However, even if you are not local the sample menu plans and recipes are valuable for their own sake. Most 'health and budget' meal plan recipes are stodgy and unappealing, calculated to satisfy health requirements rather than provide pleasure, but the recipes on SOS Cuisine read like something you actually want to make. The service is also FREE.

Tomato Egg Noodles

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A broken yolk, edges browned to a crisp, covered with grease and sludge from the wok - in what universe would this be the correct way to cook an egg? But it's one of the best things I've ever tasted on top of a bowl of tomato egg noodles or added to an order of bedspread noodles.

Chengdu's famous tomato egg noodle house on downtown Huaxi street will reportedly soon be lost to redevelopment. There are other 'Huaxi Tomato Egg Noodle' places in town, but copycat versions of chains abound here and you never know if they have a real affiliation with the original or have just stolen the name. Anyhow, I really like this version on Yulin South street. The broth has a little sourness from preserved vegetable, a little garlic, and just enough salt for the tomatoes to shine. It's a perfect breakfast or light lunch for 4-5 rmb.

Congee III: Turkey, Pressed Tofu, and Shiitake

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A search for congee recipes yielded many versions, from single ingredient to head-scratching combinations like watermelon rind and dried shrimp to sweet and savoury versions of the famous Eight Treasure (ba bao) congee. (Though 'Eight Treasure' anything on a Chinese menu is often whatever eight things happen to be lying around the kitchen.) I noticed that dried seafood, dried fruit, and dried mushrooms showed up a lot.

Wanting more hands-on research, I tried fresh mushrooms, even cooking them first. I think their flavour must be fat soluble though, because the congee smothered it. I also tried adding any fresh green thing I had on hand - delicate greens that cook quickly worked, things like broccoli didn't. Eventually I settled on three elements: something to give the congee flavour (like dried mushrooms), something to break up the texture (pressed tofu and the tendony parts of turkey), and chopped up green stuff to give it some colour and make it healthy.

For this version I used two cups of congee mix (see first congee post for details) and added two tablespoons of diced pressed tofu, two tablespoons of diced turkey, a couple handfuls of chopped greens, and three diced reconstituted shiitake mushrooms. I had to add a little more water and salt, and simmered everything just for about five minutes until it was ready. Made two big bowls.

Roasted Squash and Mushrooms

I've been going a little crazy making this lately; you can get nan gua (pumpkin) all year here but it feels so appropriate to eat it as the fall weather comes and south China is one of the most amazing places in the world to eat mushrooms. Shiitake, 'chicken leg' mushrooms, and the big ones with caps like inside-out umbrellas (shown) are readily available and very inexpensive here. I love them grilled or broiled, and found that cooking a layer of sliced mushrooms under a layer of sliced squash protects the mushrooms and keeps them from burning. The flavours are perfect together.

Oil a baking sheet and arrange a single layer of sliced mushrooms and a little salt. Slice pumpkin or squash thinly as well and spread over the mushrooms, trying to cover them in a single layer. Drizzle a bit more oil and salt over the top and put in a very hot oven for ten minutes or so until squash is tender and starts to char and mushrooms are cooked. Eat as is, or with whatever you want. Makes as much or as little as you want.

Congee II: Squash

Sunday, September 28, 2008

In the mornings street vendors stand with huge pots full of different kinds of congee. You grab a cup (that doubles as a hand warmer) equipped with a big straw for your morning commute, and it is the perfect thing on a cool day.

Nan gua is usually translated into English as 'pumpkin' but they are enormous, sweet, orange fleshed squash (they look most like big Hubbard squash to me) with a flavour very similar to butternut. Squash congee is one of the more common types and is often sweetened. I like it most for breakfast. This one has about eight times as much pumpkin as local nan gua congee, which is often watery rice with a few chunks of cooked nan gua.

To make, heat together 2 cups congee mix (see inaugural Congee post for mix method) , 1 cup cooked squash, and a few cubes rock sugar to sweeten if desired.

Congee I : Pepper Beef and Bean Sprout

Friday, September 26, 2008

Congee is something I used to see as bland and boring, but now see as a kind of miracle food - simple and comforting but infinitely variable and nourishing. It can be as simple as rice and water or it can showcase luxury ingredients. I've wanted to post about congee for a long, long time but my attempts to make it never turned out right - no matter how long I cooked the rice, it just got soggy instead of breaking down and getting creamy. I wasted a lot of good chicken stock one time, and got discouraged.

After a little research (and a lot of leftover rice after a dinner) I tried again by boiling about half and half cooked rice and water, then bringing to a simmer and adding water til it was a little thicker than congee. This worked great and made a congee base which I am keeping in the fridge, and using for a few different experiments.

The easiest kind of congee to make is just by heating the base, then chopping a few things and throwing them in and simmering long enough for the additions to cook or the flavours to blend. It's a pain if you have to cook things before adding.

The pepper beef is like deli roast beef, but a little spicy and the bean sprouts are not the baby ones that you buy in the west, but overgrown enough to have lots of little green leaves. You can use any cured meat and delicate green that is available - watercress or even lettuce would be fine.

For two small bowls: Heat 2 cups congee base and prepare 1 cup chopped greens, 2 tbs diced pepper beef. Stir in the pepper beef right away and simmer for a few minutes, then add the greens. Simmer for about ten minutes and taste for salt.

Chinese Breakfast

Thursday, September 25, 2008
Most people when travelling like to eat a familiar breakfast, but breakfast food everywhere is basic, comforting, and economical.

Brunch for less than a dollar: soymilk, vegetable dumplings, an over-easy egg, and pao cai (pickles).

The mighty you tiao (long doughnut, not sweet). Dip it into your warm soy milk or congee. Twenty cents for you tiao and soy milk at this place.

A plate of yumi dou bing (corn and bean cakes, dipped in egg and fried) to dip into a bowl of congee.

Earlier this week I asked a class of Basic English students how they would save money on food. I got some of the expected replies, like eat vegetables instead of meat and cook at home instead of eating out, but they had several more interesting suggestions:

Go on a diet.
Eat other people's food.
Look at pictures of food instead of eating.
Sleep later in the morning so that you end up eating fewer meals.

Summer Wild Berries

Sunday, August 24, 2008
Hi all - back after a hiatus that covered more travel in Canada during one month than I had previously done in several years. People who have grown up in rural Western Canada often become animated and begin talking about their childhood wild berry memories when they are served these summer treats.

Alberta wild strawberries, small this year because of the drought:

Saskatchewan wild blueberries:

I was also in BC but was too sadly too early for blackberries there.

Vegetable Mixed Grill

Monday, July 07, 2008

Shopping in ethnic markets is an inexpensive way to add variety to your diet and food shopping routine, but many people are hesitant to try cooking the unfamiliar but cheap vegetables in their local oriental market. The myriad tofu options there can be confusing, too - actually, I still find them confusing. You don't necessarily need Asian techniques or equipment to cook them, though, and grilling is a fantastic way to cook the squash or gourd type vegetables such as silk gourd or winter melon. (Caveat for the bumpy skinned bitter gourd, as it really lives up to its name and is not to everyone's taste.)

Shaokao (barbecue) is a late night street food here in Chengdu and the selection is mostly vegetarian including not only the usual grilling suspects like eggplant, corn, onions, peppers, and asparagus but also green beans, cauliflower, winter melon, cucumber, lotus root, lettuce, slices of potato, flower buds (huang hua), and various types of pressed tofu (sometimes in sheets, sometimes in rolls). It really opened up my eyes to the variety of vegetables that taste good grilled.

Above, I used zucchini, winter melon, eggplant, onion, and pressed dry tofu. The tofu is sold in a thin sheet already, so I only had to slice the vegetables before rubbing everything with oil (I used ordinary cooking oil, though most people will use olive oil) and salt, then used some hot pepper paste mixed with oil on half of the stuff. Regular barbecue sauce or a marinade would be fine too; eggplant is particularly great at soaking up flavours. Grill or broil on both sides to desired doneness. Grilled vegetables are good several hours after you cook them, but tofu is not - try to cook the tofu just before eating.

Rare daytime shaokao stand:

Leftover Vegetable Plate Soup and Grilled Cheese

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The soup is so named since I always seem to make it when we have lots of leftover vegetables from a plate of raw vegetables and dip at a party. (Could also be a 'clean out the vegetable drawer' soup.) The vegetables I used this time were carrot, cauliflower, luo bo (lo bok or daikon), and zucchini but they can easily be varied according to what you have on hand. I used a pork broth that I also needed to use up but a chicken stock would also be fine. I added a little chunk of cheese from a leftover cheese plate. Strangely, it went really well with the slightly sharp taste of the luo bo.

Cut half an onion, one clove of garlic, and two large carrots into small dice then sweat with some salt and oil in a dutch oven until tender. No need to get too fussy with the knife since everything will be blended. Add two cups chopped cauliflower, two cups chopped zucchini, two cups chopped luo bo, and two cups of broth. Bring to a boil and simmer until vegetables are tender. Puree soup in batches; then return to pan and taste for salt. Chop up two roasted red peppers and stir into the soup along with 1 tbs blue cheese (optional). Makes about six bowls of soup. For a more refined soup you can stir in milk or cream and blend until it is really creamy and smooth.

Biting into a grilled cheese sandwich is one of those simple things that always feels luxurious. Cheese is rarely thought of as budget food (see Rotini and Bleu post) but there are ways to to make the most of this precious ingredient. One way is to get good quality cheese with a stronger flavour; you need less of it to make an impact. Also, when you make a grilled cheese don't use slices but grate the cheese finely before spreading it on the bread. I use less than half the amount of cheese this way, and the sandwich is better - too much cheese makes the sandwich unwieldy and sloppy to eat. For sandwich: Generously butter two slices of bread and spread mustard on the other side of one of them. Spread two tbs finely grated aged cheddar over mustard and place assembled sandwich in covered frying pan over med heat until one side is browned; then turn and brown the other side. This is great dipped into soup.

A Couple of Salads

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

My favourite kind of salad to make and eat is the kind that takes just a few minutes' worth of chopping and mixing and will then keep in the fridge for a while. Both these recipes make a pile of salad, enough for a meal with 4-5 guests or to have on hand for a few days' worth of refreshment for the singles.

This white bean and tomato salad I've been trying to blog for a week and a half; I've made it three times but guests and roommates keep devouring the salad before I can get a picture. Use two cups cooked white beans, about the same amount of tomatos cut the same size as the beans, half a bunch of chopped cilantro, half a cup of lemon juice, half a cup of olive oil, 1 tsp of crushed garlic, and 1 tsp of salt. Mix together and let sit til next day.

The soybean salad I first made as part of the potato salad, and was good enough to make again for its own sake. Steam one and a half pounds shelled fresh soybeans, meanwhile mixing together 2/3 cup white wine vinegar, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 tbs dried oregano, and 2/3 tsp of salt. Pour dressing over hot soybeans and mix together, then store in fridge. You can eat the salad as soon as the beans have cooled off but it is better the next day.

Grilled Eggplant with Sesame and Green Onions

Friday, June 13, 2008

These days are oppressively humid and I feel especially lazy. I've been eating a lot of grilled vegetables, either the street barbecue known as shaokao (烧烤)or done on a cast iron stovetop grill pan. If you have great vegetables a little oil and salt can transform a potato and half an eggplant into something really satisfying. After eating vast quantities of plain grilled eggplant, however, I was searching for a little variety and happened on this recipe from epicurious, which combines onion, sesame seeds, sesame oil, and soy sauce into a barbecue sauce that contains neither sugar nor acid. Too lazy to adapt, or even copy it out, I am simply linking to it. (I did toast my own sesame seeds; very worth it if you have time.) Sesame and eggplant are natural together and this came out quite rich and salty, making me wish I had sour cream or some of the potato salad left.

Watch this space for more grilling in the next few weeks...

Creamy Potato and Fresh Soybean Salad

Saturday, June 07, 2008

I enjoy the early morning farmer's market scene as much as anyone, but locally one of the best ways to get deals is by going late, just when people are packing things up. In particular the vendors selling semi prepared food such as peeled potatoes, shelled peas, and husked corn are most willing to give you a deal. Once a lady emptied out a whole basket of greens for me when I asked for one yuan's worth. (The go-late principle reportedly works in Western parts as well as Eastern.)

So I got back one evening with 1 and a half pounds of peeled potatoes and half a pound of fresh shelled soybeans. I wanted to make potato salad but didn't have pickles, so I just cooked the potatoes and steamed the soybeans over top of them. I then tossed the beans with 1.5 tbs white vinegar, 2 tbs olive oil, 1 tsp Italian seasoning, and salt. (I almost stopped here. The beans in vinaigrette were so good the next day I almost ate them all like this and used the potatoes for something else.)

After I bought pickles I cut the potatoes into chunks and smashed the chunks a bit, then cut dill pickles into about 2/3 of a cup's worth small dice. I emptied the beans into a bowl with the potatoes, pickles, and 1 tbs minced pepperoncini. I stirred up half a cup of pickle jar juice and dregs including a lot of garlic and dill pieces, and finally added a generous half cup of mayo. Stirred everything up and added 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp black pepper. Great lunch the next day, after I tasted it again for salt and pepper. This makes enough salad for a group, six or so.

Creamed Corn with Onion and Pepper

Friday, May 30, 2008

My early experiences cooking and eating corn in China were very disappointing - the stuff was not sweet at all. 'Feed corn! - at home we'd give this to animals, not people', I thought. I had forgotten the principle of extreme freshness - with corn, the sugars turn to starches once picked. If you have corn in your garden, for example, it's best to start water boiling and then go out to pick the corn so you can cook it as soon as possible to preserve max sweetness. In China I eventually learned to buy corn only from the farmer's market, taste a kernel before buying, and then cook the stuff as soon as I got home.

Most people have a very specific idea of what creamed corn should be; mine is the basic cream corn from a can. One of my sisters had a deep love for the stuff when we were little. I wanted to make something far removed from the childhood memory though, and try the method that uses the corn's natural starch to thicken the sauce. I also added some onion and pepper for flavour. I used milk but you can definitely use real cream. This is a labour intensive recipe suitable for one or two people; it's a bit too much work for a crowd.

Take two very fresh cobs of corn and run a knife down the centre of each row of kernels so that they split. Cut/scrape the corn off of the cob, working over a containter to catch the juice. Mince a tablespoon of onion and half a tablespoon of hot green pepper and saute in 2 tbs (less if desired) butter with 1 tsp salt til tender; add corn and saute until just starting to soften. Add two thirds of a cup of milk and simmer til milk is thickened; taste for salt. Main for one (serve with biscuits and sliced fresh tomatoes) or side for two.

Bedspread Noodles

Saturday, May 24, 2008

My friends and I were extremely lucky that nobody was hurt or inconvenienced more than a few nights' worth of open air sleeping, but it's been a rough couple of weeks since the earthquake and we are still wobbled by aftershocks. (The water in the water cooler is moving as I type.)

Bedspread noodles are comfort food for after a disaster - wide sheets of noodle dough in broth with the usual suspects for toppings - suan cai, beef, plain or spicy stewed chicken, and others. Ribs are shown. When I took the picture I had no idea that there were stewed dried peas hiding in the sheets and the combination was unpretentious and perfect. I almost felt like I was eating an Italian pasta and bean soup. Chinese name: 铺盖面 (pu1gai4 mian).

Winter Melon and Fire Leg

Friday, May 16, 2008

Winter melon has become one of my favourite vegetables since moving to China. It has very little colour or flavour but the texture is amazing. It is one of the best things to cook in a hot pot, and I always find myself scanning the menu for winter melon dishes. A couple of weeks ago I ordered a dish of winter melon and ham (火腿, literally 'fire leg') but the ham ended up being a spam like substance that I picked out. This is something more like the dish I was anticipating.

Slice a pound and a half or so of winter melon thinly and sliver a couple tablespoons of bacon or salt pork with about one tablespoon of minced onion. Cook the bacon in a big frying pan or wok until the fat is rendered (if you are using a less fatty cut of meat, use oil) and add the winter melon. Add a half cup or so of broth and simmer until winter melon is tender. Serves 2 over rice.

Kendeji Style Corn Salad

Monday, April 21, 2008

In China, the K in KF-Chicken product stands for Kendeji. The meal combos don't come with a default side of fries (though you can swap them in) but with a little cup of corn salad - corn with carrots and cucumbers in a creamy dressing. Salads here are usually pretty grim, at least as depressing as the 'chicken juice potato mud' (mashed spuds and gravy) offered by the same chain, but I tried the corn salad for the first time a couple of days ago and was amazed at how great it went with the 'fragrant spicy chicken wings'.

To make the stuff at home I diced half a medium carrot, and two tiny cucumbers (it was only about 3/4 cup of chopped cucumber total). I steamed the carrot pieces for a few mintues, then added two cups of corn kernels and cooked them together until the kernels were just still holding crispness, then chilled them. Meanwhile, I salted and drained the cucumber.

(I'm really getting into steaming food by the way. In addition to the health and environmental reasons, if you have high quality vegetables then steaming preserves their colour/shape/flavour really beautifully. You also don't burn things, though it is easy to overcook...)

When everything was ready to mix together I poked through the fridge searching for my tube of Kewpie, but could not find it. I wanted a really sweet and tangy dressing but had to improvise by mixing 1.5 tbs mayo with 1 tbs cream and 1 tsp of sugar and 1/2 tbs lemon juice and a few shakes of salt. That said, giving exact amounts for this kind of salad is tough; the sweetness of the corn and whether or not the cucumbers were salted will affect the final taste. I would also use plain white vinegar here in place of lemon juice if I had it(white vinegar in China has little acidity). Anyway, make sure the taste balances and chill until cold, then taste again before serving. Serves 2-4.

Guo Kui

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Guo Kui is the name given either to flat breads that are baked, then split and filled like sandwiches or stuffed with meat or sweet things and then pan fried.

The fried kind are my favourite. The stuffed kind are expensive and messy to eat, and it's harder to find safe specimens. However, there is one place by the Sichuan opera house downtown that has amazingly good guo kui; shown below.

Guo Kui are 1.5-2.5 RMB for the fried kind and 3-5 RMB for the sandwich variety. Because of my location I've been insulated from rising food prices back home; how are the frugal cooks managing in North America?

Millet Porridge and Other Convenience Foods

Monday, March 24, 2008

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that convenience is a good measure of food value. Many of the least expensive and healthiest foods take work - fresh vegetables need washing and peeling, beans need soaking and long cooking, grains ditto. The great thing is that a lot of this work can be done ahead of time so that when mealtime or random hunger strikes the prep and cleanup is minimal. Last Sunday I took a few hours in the afternoon and did a bunch of prep so that during the week I would have lots of quick food options in the fridge:

Kidney Beans: hot soak and cook, for use in tostadas and in kidney bean sandwich spread

Potatoes: scrubbed and cooked (skins on) to make home fries and Eggs Cooked on Top of Things

Skillet Grape Tomatoes: Put a pound of grape tomatoes in a wide frying pan over high heat with a tablespoon of olive oil and about a teaspoon of salt. Shake pan, covered, til tomatoes get blackened and juicy. Can be warmed up to eat with a few crumbles of feta or alongside a grilled cheese.

Roasted Calabacita: Cut calabacita into wedges (or slice zucchini); drizzle with oil or melted butter and a little salt. Roast in a toaster oven til tender and a bit charred. I was going to save these for use in tostadas too but ended up eating them. Amazingly good.

Roasted Red Peppers: These are very fun to do by yourself; they smell amazing and the vivid red/black is beautiful. Take a red pepper and char it all over under the broiler. When cool enough to handle, peel and lift out the stem and seeds. Use on eggs or tuck into sandwiches, or save to make roasted eggplant, tomato and red pepper dip.

Millet Porridge: Cook millet in 4X water (by volume) and a little salt. Keep cooked cereal in fridge and warm up with a little water mixed in for breakfast. Last time I made this I stirred in cooked sweet potato and honey, but it is just as good plain.

Green Peppers and Onions: Slice into slivers for stir fries. Red Cook is a great new Chinese food blog which is now running a stir fry series.

Noodles V: Ran Mian (燃面)

Saturday, March 08, 2008

We finish up the noodle series with a snacks post. Left front is the star of this post - a bowl of ran mian. In the rear is a slightly more expensive bowl of dan dan mian. In front is a little dish of pao cai and peeking in the far left is a bowl of noodle water to drink. Dan dan mian is one of the only things I could read on a menu when I first got to China so I ended up ordering it a lot and quickly got sick of it. I still eat dan dan mian from time to time but much prefer ran mian, noodles with similar spicy and oily condiments but which are vegetarian and have added tang from the ya cai and crunch from the peanuts. They cost about thirty cents for a little one oz bowl like this.

I haven't made ran mian yet - it is too cheap and easily available at the snack restaurants. But I will miss it a lot when I leave China so here is a recipe that I want to try when I can no longer get it on the street. It is from this Chinese food site, which gives quite a bit of background and explanation of the snack.

You need 3 oz of fresh Chinese wheat noodles, 2 tbs of chopped ya cai (芽菜, a type of preserved vegetable), 2 tbs of chopped roasted salted peanuts, one chopped green onion, 1 tbs of chili oil, 4 tbs of sesame oil, 2 cloves of garlic, 3 tbs soy sauce, 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp of vinegar, 1 pinch ground Sichuan pepper, MSG to taste.

Boil the noodles til al dente (texture is important) and drain; then toss with the sesame oil so they don't stick. Pile noodles into 2 bowls and top with remaining condiments. Everyone stirs the condiments into the noodles with chopsticks before digging in.

Noodles IV: Rotini and Bleu

Friday, February 22, 2008

Many people think of cost per volume or cost per weight when looking for a good grocery buy. This is easy to figure because this is how many foodstuffs are sold. There are other ways to look at food value, however. Cost per usable weight often comes out differently than the cost of what you buy, for example - about one third of a banana's weight is skin. Considering cost per nutrition leads the shopper to healthier, if more expensive foods like dark coloured greens or whole grain foods rather than their blander, paler counterparts. Convenience is a valid measure of grocery value, though it often comes at a price of flavour and nutrition. Then there is cost per pleasure or cost per flavour. Blue cheese ends up being a great buy on this scale; a small amount packs a great deal of character and flavour.

This is one of those pasta dishes that can be ready in slightly more than the time it takes to boil the noodles. A noodle with high surface area for the sauce to cling to is ideal. I like eating this richly sauced pasta with a pile of steamed vegetables, either greens or squash, that can be cooked over the pasta water. You could also chop some tomatoes to stir in at the end.

Boil 3/4 cup of rotini or other short pasta in salted water. Meanwhile, heat 3 tbs of cream with 1 tbs blue cheese, more or less to taste, in microwave or other container. You can use a pretty strong blue like Gorgonzola or a Danish blue here, or a milder one if desired. Add a pinch of salt to balance cheese if needed. Drain pasta well and stir in sauce til coated. Serves one.

Noodles III: Loch Ness Noodles

Sunday, February 10, 2008

My homemade noodles always morph into something monster-like - larger than life and not too pretty. They take more work than I usually do for one meal too, so I don't make them very often. I really love how they taste, however, and they satisfy my childhood wish to have bigger noodles, and more noodles, in my soup. This is a good recipe for a day when you can put off all your outside tasks and spend an hour or so in the kitchen.

Start by making the noodle dough - one and two thirds cups of flour, two eggs, and two tablespoons of milk. Mix together thoroughly (dough will be moist) and then work in enough additional flour to make a kneadable dough. Knead til smooth and elastic and wrap in plastic to rest for a few minutes.

Chop the vegetables for the soup next. This soup is all about the noodles, so you want really little pieces that will mostly cook down. Cut about one cup of finely diced celery and the same of onion, three cloves of garlic, and some carrot if desired. Sweat these vegetables in a dutch oven or large saucepan with about a teaspoon of salt til they are limp and giving up their flavours. I added two thirds of a cup of chicken, chopped small like the vegetables, but you can easily leave it out. Add one and a half litres of chicken stock and one chopped tomato. Bring to a boil; then simmer.

This is where you shape the noodles. I either roll them thin and cut them with a knife, or just pull off little pieces of dough to roll with my hands. Doesn't seem to make much difference.

Anyway, taste the soup and make sure there is enough salt (the noodles will absorb some) before bringing to a boil. Drop in noodles and boil noodles for several minutes, until they are cooked all the way through. It's tough to eat these with a spoon so we attacked them with chopsticks. Serves 3-4.

Noodles II: Chap Chae

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Once I presented this Korean dish at a party with many Chinese guests, and was told that it is actually very Chinese. The star is sweet potato noodles - I love their elasticity and affinity for flavours and how their translucence lets the bright vegetables shine through. (I don't love how they like to clump together in a big mass, but manoeuvering them is part of the fun.) Carrot, mushroom, spinach,onion and sesame are the classic flavours here. I added celery because I had some to use; you can easily leave it out or add other vegetables such as green peppers.

Start water boiling for the noodles and set aside . Chop one large carrot, two skinny stalks of celery, and four green onions into matchsticks; chop 2 large fresh or rehydrated shiitake mushrooms into thin slices. Chop half a bunch of spinach, or leave baby leaves whole. Chop 3 cloves of garlic and julienne 3 oz of beef. (Other options - can use thin slices of fried scrambled egg, or dried tofu. Beef works very well in this dish though, the flavour is really right.)

The meat and each vegetable has to be fried separately to start. This may seem like a hassle but the textures are important, and you want things to cook quickly in high heat. It really doesn't take that much more time than doing everything together and you can adjust the heat for each step. Start by frying the beef with the garlic and 1/2 tsp salt in a large frying pan or wok until cooked through; remove to bowl and add carrots to wok. Cook over high heat til carrots are tender but not soft and remove to same bowl. Follow by cooking onions - they will need only a few seconds - and celery. Blanch the spinach (can use the noodle water for this).

Boil 1/2 of a pound potato starch noodles for a couple of minutes until just soft; then drain and add to frying pan with other ingredients. Add2 tbs sesame oil, 2 tbs soy sauce, 1 tbs white sesame seeds, and 2 tsp sugar. Stir together til heated through and flavours are blended. Serves 2-3.

Noodles I : Ants Climbing a Tree

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This is the first in a series of noodle themed posts that will appear over the next month. Enjoy!

One of the better known Sichuan dishes is 蚂蚁上树 (ma3yi3 shang4shu4 - ants climbing a tree). Highly seasoned ground pork is cooked with bean thread noodles so that as you lift your chopsticks, bits of meat cling to the noodles like ants climbing up a tree.

My attempts at Chinese cooking often turn out badly for reasons that I don't understand, but I figured that a dish this simple might be within my grasp. The only specialty ingredient here is dou ban jiang - spicy fermented bean paste. The most efficient way is to start your water boiling for the noodles, chop the vegetables, and then begin cooking the noodles just before you start to cook the other ingredients. If you have everything on hand, it is about ten minutes' work.

Bring a litre or so of water to boil and cook 120 g (three single serving bundles) of bean thread noodles for 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Chop 3 cloves of garlic, 1 tsp of ginger, 2 mild red chilies, and four green onions. Save some green onions aside for garnish and start cooking everything else in 2 tbs of oil until fragrant, then add 1/2 cup of finely ground pork and cook together until pork is cooked through. Add 1 tsp of white sugar, 1 tbs sesame oil, 1 1/2 tbs dou ban jiang, 1 tbs ground red pepper (more or less depending on how much of a chili head you are), 1 tbs soy sauce, and 2/3 of a cup or so of water. Cook til you have a uniform, soupy mixture and then add the drained noodles. Mix everything together until noodles absorb the water and then garnish with reserved green onions. Serves 2-3 with rice and another dish.

Rou Jia Mo

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A street food guide I read once recommended patronizing places where more than one family member works - a sign that their little business is popular enough to support a household. This couple works in perfect tandem - he shapes and bakes the bread and she chops up stewed chunks of pork with green pepper and stuffs it inside the round of bread, then moistens the sandwich with a ladle of dark broth before handing it to you. Rou jia mo (肉夹馍) is one of those snacks that can be boring or very, very good if done right. This family's bread is always fresh and crusty on the outside, and the sandwich is always satisfying. Even though they give you a plastic bag to use as a handle, you have to be careful of the juice running over your hands. Rou jia mo is not native to Sichuan (though it resembles the local hot pork guo kui; more on those in the future) but comes from Shaanxi. If you visit Xian you will see it more.

A close up of the sandwich, which costs 2.5 to 3 rmb or 20 to 24 cents. You can add an egg for another half rmb.