Archive for the ‘farmers market’ Category

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.”

Living in Interesting Times: Shortages

When I talk with friends and neighbors about the current pandemic, I am sometimes surprised to encounter a firm fixed belief that there are no food shortages and won’t be any food shortages. Ask them if they’ve tried to buy flour or rice lately and you won’t receive a sensible reply. My own view is that in such situations there are potentially two kinds of shortages: short-term ones caused by panic-buying and hoarding, and longer-term ones caused by interruption of supply chains. Our current difficulty (at least in my area) in getting rice, flour, eggs, and toilet paper fall in the first category. Some people’s’ hoarding caused others to go without, and I’ll just add that there is a special place in hell reserved for those who hoard and price-gouge infant food, diapers, and other baby supplies. But there is lots of other stuff available and most of us will be just fine except for a little grousing.

The other kind of shortage, from interruption of production and transportation chains, is longer-term, hard to predict accurately, and potentially more worrisome. Without predicting disaster, I can only say that American agriculture depends heavily on immigrant labor, and you can review the Farm Bureau’s summary of this. I will quote only one startling fact from their statistics: “If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 to $60 billion.” Since to help contain the pandemic we are closing borders and tightening enforcement, I don’t see how the agricultural labor supply can be unaffected. This could translate to fruit unharvested and veggies decaying in the fields or not getting planted in the first place.

This is a long-winded way of saying that all food should be treated like the treasure it is. Don’t hoard it, and don’t waste it either. Look at what you have and let your imagination run wild about how you might use it. Relax your usual food restrictions unless they relate to religion or health. Taste things you might not ordinarily think about. Get a couple of good cookbooks about vegetables so that you’re ready to get the most out of available produce. Two that I highly recommend are Six Seasons and Vegetables Unleashed. Both are available in e-format and will help you make the most of any food available. Think creatively about what to make. Can’t get rice? Make lettuce wraps. We are not going to starve, not by a long shot, and we can better utilize our supply chain by being more flexible in our thinking.
The problem that I really worry about is not national and international supply chains but local ones. Huge ag corporations won’t be allowed to go under, but your area small farmers and stock raisers just might, or may be disheartened enough by plowing good vegetables back into the dirt that they don’t continue. So find out where they are and how you can buy their produce. In my area the growers’ markets will open in May but  will be limited to food only, and since it’s in the open air, this is probably safer than going to a grocery store. Use all recommended precautions, but support those growers.

Plant something of your own. This morning I was thinking about what I would grow if I only had one small garden bed to work with. Given a tiny little space four feet on a side, I would double-dig it, enrich the hell out of the soil, and plant Fordhook Swiss chard and tuck some thyme plants in at the edges. Chard produces heavily all summer regardless of heat if kept watered, and few things will do more for your health than eating more leafy greens. The taste is mild and acceptable to nearly everyone. The old reliable Fordhook is more productive and resilient than the newer fancier colors, and the stems offer a second vegetable with a different texture, great in stir-fries. It can be harvested all summer and then left in place to produce some early greens the following year. Chickens adore any leaves that you don’t get around to eating, and if you know any goats, they love the tough ends of the stalks, or just compost them. One packet of seed produces all the greens a small family can eat. I don’t know of a more nutritious and efficient vegetable. As for how to use it, click on the “greens” category in the sidebar on the right side of this page  for a dozen or more ideas, and that’s just the beginning.

 

 

 

 

Dressing Up the Greens

My fanaticism about leafy greens is no secret,  and I have said in the past that if you keep them prepped and ready and preferably pre-cooked, you will eat a lot more of them. In the summer I try to keep horta, the Greek cooked greens mixture, in the refrigerator and see how many ways I can use it.
Although in general I eat low-carb, I do sometimes bake sourdough bread because I have a very good starter and it would be a pity not to use it now and then. Well, actually, I do it because sourdough bread is one of my favorite things and I allow myself an occasional relapse. The last time I made sourdough, I put a lump of dough about the size of a softball in the refrigerator, and a few days later I got the urge to use it.
If you have the dough and the horta ready, a greens calzone is a very easy thing to produce and looks rather spectacular. Pat the chilled dough out into a large thin circle, pile horta on half of it, top with generous layers of grated Parmesan and torn-up mozzarella, fold the bare half over the top, brush a beaten egg over the top dough and sprinkle with coarse salt, cut some slits in the top, and bake at 425 degrees until cooked through and browned. Ten minutes of actual hands-on time and some oven time when you can do other things.

If you don’t happen to have bread dough in the refrigerator, many stores and pizzerias now sell fresh pizza dough.

Species in my current batch of horta: lambsquarters, chard, walking onions, green garlic, broccoli leaves, mulberry shoots, wild lettuce tips, parsley, thyme.  Really a tiny number of species this time, but still awfully good.

Peapod Feast

One of my favorite vegetables in the world is the Oregon Giant snow pea. It makes large pods that don’t acquire their best flavor until the peas inside swell to nearly full-size, more like a snap pea. At that stage they’re the best thing in the garden, and everything else goes on the back burner while they’re in season. They do need their strings removed before cooking. Anything this delicious is worth working a little for.

Most of the time, I use them the same way that I’d use hand-rolled fettuccine. I prefer the simplified Alfredo treatment shown above: Boil enough  pods for two people in salted water for four minutes, put in a strainer to drain thoroughly, and to the hot pan add two tablespoons of butter and half a cup of heavy cream. Boil furiously over high heat for just a few minutes until the cream starts to thicken, then return the peas to the pan and boil hard for another minute. Turn off the burner and add a three-fingered pinch of salt and a generous handful of grated Parmesan, stir just until the cheese begins to melt, plate the peas, and sprinkle a bit  more cheese and some freshly ground pepper over the top. Have fleur de sel available at the table. Perfection.

As to what quantity of peas serves two people, well, how many do you have? I use this recipe for about a pound to 1.5 pounds of pods. I could probably eat a pound myself, but try not to. If you have more, scale up the sauce a bit.

If you need some variety, peas also respond well to a carbonara treatment with egg yolks and some pancetta or bacon (don’t sneer at the bacon. It’s inauthentic but delicious.)

The pods are also delicious plain with some butter and salt, or grilled in a grilling basket, or dipped raw into dip of your choice.