Archive for April, 2020

Living in Interesting Times: Using What You Have

A big part of public safety right now is staying on your own property whenever possible, so I’m trying to use my own supplies rather than shopping. As you see above, it’s been no hardship. In the past I’ve enjoyed a dish of noodles with roasted scallions at Chinese restaurants, and decided to make something like it (but better if possible) at home.

If you have perennial green onions you will have them forever, and they spread so efficiently that they become quite a weed in time. For this dish I pulled four very large fat green onions, cleaned them, and cut them in 2” lengths, then cut each chunk in fine lengthwise slivers, keeping the white parts and green parts in two separate piles. If you’re using commercial scallions, 8-10 of them is probably equivalent.

Eggs are a home ground food for me, since I have chickens, so egg noodles are a natural and can be used in both Italian and Asian dishes. I make the noodles at home with flour and egg yolks only, and for this dish I used the “bad cuts” that always happen when you process a large batch of noodle dough; sheets that didn’t feed well into the rollers and got distorted or torn. When done with the properly cut noodles, I stack the distorted sheets up and cut them diagonally into broad noodles about 3/4” wide, rather like pappardelle. They look messy but remain delicious. Blanched for one to two minutes in salted water and tossed with a bit of oil so that they don’t stick together, they are ready to finish in the wok. I estimate that I used half a pound, cooked. You could use any egg noodle available, cooked until done but not mushy and tossed with a bit of oil. Of course, if you have fresh Chinese-style egg noodles, use those. For quantity, estimate whatever is two generous servings to you.

Frying noodles is one of the few jobs for which I use a restaurant-quality nonstick wok. If your regular wok is very well-seasoned, you may want to use it.

The third ingredient is soy sauce, and the fourth ingredient is hot oil and its goop. Commercial hot oil is all made with inferior oil and offers little except a belt of heat. Make your own. Start with 1 and 1/2 cups of good fairly flavorless oil (I prefer avocado oil) and heat it gently in a saucepan. Add 1/2 cup fresh pungent red chile flakes, 10 “coins” of ginger chopped, half a cup of unrinsed fermented black beans, and 10 cloves of garlic chopped. Simmer the mixture for 15-20 minutes over medium-low heat. It should bubble continually but not wildly. Turn off the heat and the oil is ready to use. Always store it in the refrigerator, and the cooked flavorings that fall to the bottom are the goop. I almost always use both oil and goop in seasoning a dish. The ingredients are available by mail or on Amazon (although they are a lot more expensive that way) if you don’t happen to keep these things in your kitchen.

Once you have slivered scallions, cooked noodles, and hot oil with goop, making this dish takes less than 15 minutes. Put a quarter cup of oil in the heated wok over high heat and swirl it around well. Add the white part of the scallions and stir-fry for about two minutes, then add the slivered green parts and a good pinch of salt. How far to cook them is your call. Personally, I prefer them when some of the ends are browning a bit but they are still rather soft and sweet, as shown in the photo at the top. Use a slotted spatula to remove the scallions to a bowl, add the noodles to the scallion oil remaining in the hot wok, sprinkle generously with soy sauce, and add about a tablespoon each of hot oil and goop. Fry vigorously for several minutes, adding more soy as needed and turning rather delicately with a spatula so as not to cut up the noodles. When done to your taste (I like mine a bit browned and crisp in spots,) serve up and pile the roasted green onions on top. The diner stirs them in and adds more soy sauce if desired.

As you can imagine, this is a wonderfully improvisational dish. Use what you have. If the only pasta you have in the house is dried spaghetti, cook that and use it; you can bet that a provident Chinese grandmother would do the same if that’s what she had to work with. Stir-fried shitake mushrooms are terrific fried in with the noodles. Slivers of egg cake (upcoming post) can be fried in. Finely sliced kale or chard can be fried a few minutes in the scallion oil before the noodles are added. Other vegetables, appropriately cooked, find a wonderful home here. The roasted scallion topping is good on fried rice or on wok-fried eggs or, for that matter, regular fried or scrambled eggs or on any rather plain vegetable dish. If you don’t have green onions but do have young tender green garlic, use that instead, for a different but equally good flavor. If using green garlic I prefer fine cross sections to lengthwise slivers, to avoid any stringiness in the green leaves.  Have fun and enjoy the thrill of feeling frugal while really enjoying yourself. There is a lot of tragedy in the world right now, but no harm in lifting yourself above grim reality for an hour or two.

Living in Interesting Times: Unexpected Perennial Vegetables


I’ve written a lot about the perennial “weeds” around my place that keep me in greens,  but there are also some veggies that aren’t known as perennials but can be managed that way for good eating with very little work.

Surprisingly, garlic can be managed that way. I plant a lot of garlic because I use huge amounts as green garlic before it ever matures a bulb. In one area I forgot to harvest, and by year three I had a thick clump of fine grassy leaves in the spring that were tender and delicately scented of garlic. Of course you won’t get any bulbs if you manage garlic this way. It’s strictly a leafy herb. In early spring I start cutting bunches of the leaves thinly, like chives,  to float on soups and toss decoratively on top of other dishes. By late spring the leaves are tougher and I use handfuls of them chopped into stir-fries where they will get at least a few minutes of cooking. In midsummer the leaves brown and die back, and new leaves come up in the fall.

I’m also experimenting with managing ordinary leeks in a perennial bed. So far I’ve only been at this for a couple of years, so I don’t know how it will work out in the long run. The first year I planted deeply in the normal way, then when I was ready to harvest the leeks in late summer, I carefully dug away the dirt next to them and cut the edible shaft off, leaving the base and roots in place. Naturally you get a bit of dirt on the cut and have to trim away another 1/4 inch to clean them up for the kitchen. The following spring each base sent up between 2 and 5 “daughters.” I dug some out by the roots to thin the bed, using the thinnings  chopped up in greens dishes. I left some by themselves and some as smaller clumps of two or three.

At this point in late spring all are of useable size, although of course the singletons are larger. I’ll harvest some as described above and leave some in place to throw up a bloomscape. Leek scapes  are one of my favorite garden treats. The tough outer skin needs to be peeled off but the interior is delicious, sweet, crisp, and gently oniony. It’s a wonderful element in Chinese dishes, having both flavor and texture.
I’ll plan to dig out enough by the roots to leave just one base in each planting position, so that (I hope) each will again make good-sized useable leeks the following year.

Keep in mind that your own leeks, harvested young, can often be used up to the tips. Cut the leaves in cross sections about 1/4” wide and use in cooked greens dishes or stew them gently in butter or olive oil with a little salt until tender. They need cooking to get tender even in early spring, and get tougher as the weather warms and are no longer useable except to cook in broth for flavoring. Don’t try cooking the leaves of leeks from the store, which have been in storage and are tough as nails.

When managing anything as a perennial, don’t forget to keep the soil fed. I sprinkle some chicken manure around in fall, then mulch with alfalfa hay, and the soil is black and rich now, a far remove from  the tan adobe clay that I started with.

Living in Interesting Times: More Experiments with Greens


Spring weather is always erratic here in the high desert, but more so this year than usual. First an early spring, with the crocuses blooming a full two weeks earlier than they ever have before. Then weeks of balmy spring weather and a glorious fruit-tree bloom, followed this week by a hard freeze, a day of snow, then a week of 70 degree afternoons. Seriously weird. The tiny green fruit that set so abundantly has shriveled and turned black, but of course the greens are undaunted. This is their glory season and the sudden temperature changes seem only to amuse them.

My only concern is to find new ways to eat them. Right now I’m happily reliving the Chinese phase that lasted through most of my twenties. While rereading Fuschia Dunlop’s The Food 0f Sichuan, I was reminded of the small cold dishes of vegetables with complex spicy dressings that are served in small portions as a sort of tapas array before meals, and I decided to try a larger version on a rice base as a light meal.

The greens were a handful each of a lot of things growing around the yard: two chard leaves with stems sliced, a collard leaf sliced into threads, scorzonera leaves sliced crossways, bladder campion stems, the tender tips of goji berry shoots, small fennel leaves, a few tarragon tips, and several leaves of young curly kale. All were steamed for about 4 minutes and then allowed to cool to room temperature. Cooked white rice was brought to room temperature.
The greens were chopped into pieces about an inch long, mixed up, and layered on top of the rice.

To make the dressing, a 1”x2” piece of ginger and two large cloves of garlic were pounded to a paste in the mortar with about a teaspoon of sugar. Stir in a tablespoon of hot oil with chile flakes (or less, depending on heat preference,) half a cup of good soy sauce, a couple of tablespoons of rice vinegar, and a tablespoon of Asian roasted sesame oil and you have a good basic dressing. Taste and see if you want it sweeter. Drizzle generously over the greens and eat, or elaborate further if you want with the addition of meat or shrimp.

Living in Interesting Times: Improvisational Stir-fries

 


The current world travails started me thinking about thrift. The most financially difficult period of my life was when I lived in Manhattan on a beginning designer’s salary and paid over 3/4 of my salary in rent. It probably goes without saying that I had no health insurance or paid sick leave and lived in constant fear of illness, and couldn’t afford any of the usual entertainments. It was one of the most useful periods of my life too, because it’s when I learned to make reading and cooking fill my entertainment function. I spent wonderful hours digging through the NY Public Library’s collection of cookbooks (free entertainment,) walking miles to Manhattan’s Chinatown (exercise +health maintenance+entertainment/sightseeing,) shopping in the wondrous markets there (thrift+entertainment,) then walking back and cooking dinner (nutrition+health maintenance+delicious entertainment.) I bought a huge carbon steel wok and cleaver for less than $10 each and with one thrift-shop pot to cook rice, one rice bowl, and one set of porcelain-tipped chopsticks, I was ready to cook anything.

I wouldn’t want to live like that now, and I’m appropriately grateful to have health insurance and sick leave. But I still love to channel the spirit of a thrifty Chinese spiritual grandmother and cook up a tasty stir-fry now and then. Rice is in very short supply in my area right now, but I have enough to cook up a pot of rice, add condiments to vegetables from my garden, and have a delicious meal for under $5 for two people. I wanted to use up some of the rich gold yolks that my chickens produce abundantly, and it occurred to me that frying them quickly into a sort of yolk pancake would yield a texture that could work well in a quick, explosive stir-fry.
Last year’s Fordhook Swiss chard is throwing up beautiful meaty leaves right now, so I started with four big chard leaves and four fat perennial green onions.

I tend to divide improvisational Chinese dishes into cooked rice (the base,) vegetables (the bulk,) protein (meat, eggs, etc.,) texture foods (often mushrooms in my kitchen,) and seasonings.  As with any improvisation, don’t throw stuff in at random. Think carefully to create a harmony. And everything has to be prepped and ready before you start. I assemble everything in little piles and pinch dishes on an 18×24” cutting board. I pulled the chard leaves away from the stems, cut the leaves in crosswise strips, and chopped the stems in 1/4” cross sections. The white part of the green onions were cut in 1/4” sections, and a few of the leaves cut into diagonal slivers.  I cooked five beaten egg yolks into a pancake in a hot skillet with avocado oil, let it cool, and cut it into long 1/4” wide slivers. A handful of sliced dried tree ears were hydrated in hot water. Tree ears are a texture food, and if they aren’t available, just omit them.  A couple of tablespoons of fermented black beans were soaked in cold water to reduce their salt load a little, then squeezed dry. A piece of ginger 1”x2” was cut into cross sections, a bulb end of green garlic likewise, then the two chopped together into pieces the size of coarse crumbs. A half cup of water had a tablespoon of rice vinegar, two teaspoons of sugar, a heaping teaspoon of cornstarch, and about 2 teaspoons of oyster sauce stirred in, and avocado oil, soy sauce, and Asian roasted sesame oil were standing by. I used some chile oil too, but you can leave it out if you don’t care for heat.

The rice is cooked and served up into heated bowls, and your prepped ingredients stand ready next to the wok or skillet. From here it goes so fast that you can’t believe it. Heat the cooking vessel fiery hot over highest heat, pour in some avocado oil, wait 30 seconds, put in the chopped ginger and garlic and fermented beans, and stir with a cooking paddle for a few seconds, just until the ginger scent reaches your nose. Throw in the drained tree ears, the chard stems, and the white part of the scallions, stirring vigorously for a few seconds after each addition. Add a few shakes of soy sauce and stir all this around for about 30 more seconds, then stir in the chard leaves and slivered egg-yolk pancakes. When the chard leaves look done, about a minute later if you were bold and kept the heat at maximum, add the water mixture (stirring hastily to get the cornstarch in suspension before adding to the wok,) and stir while it boils fiercely and thickens, another minute or less. Stir in the scallion leaves and serve over hot rice. Sprinkle with soy sauce and finish with a drizzle of sesame oil. Add some chile oil if you want to. The clarity relies on keeping the heat explosive. If you lose your nerve or pause at any point, your sauce will get sludgy and the purity of the taste  be lost.

If you want a serious education in Chinese cooking, I recommend any book by Fuschia Dunlop, and her Hunanese Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook may be my favorite. I dislike Chairman Mao (and all other dictators) pretty intensely but his home province has created some of this world’s truly delicious food. The old classic that I first learned from, Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, is still around and turns up on EBay and used book sites. It has excellent discussions of ingredients and achieving the true taste, and the recipes are as good as ever.

Explosive frying, stir-frying at very high heat, is a good technique to have in your back pocket for almost any vegetable. They have to be sliced and trimmed to appropriate sizes so that they will cook through. Therefore, the technique doesn’t save kitchen time, it just shifts time to prep, with the cooking happening in 5-10 exciting minutes at the end. It does add a special flavor of its own, the famous “breath of the wok.”