Archive for the ‘Vegetable dinners’ 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.”

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.

 

The Greens of Early Summer

I love leafy greens and consider them one of the healthiest foods in the world, as long as they were raised in a clean fashion.  If you are lucky enough to have a garden and an active permaculture property, you can nearly always eat some greens but the source of your greens changes throughout the growing season.  Right now, we are in the glory season for lambsquarters, and they are everywhere and are at their tender best right now. I eat huge quantities of them, but I have written so much about them elsewhere that in this post I will say very little except: for the sake of your health and your palate, learn to identify them, harvest them, prepare them, and eat them.

Today I decided to write about some uncommon greens which are unique to the season.  Americans don’t think very much about eating the leaves of trees, but some of them are very appealing, and my favorite “tree green“ is the young sprouts of mulberry trees.  It is almost never possible to gather good edible leaves from mature trees. The best mulberry greens are the tips of actively growing shoots from trees that have been cut back, and I am lucky because on the walking trail near the river in my area, several mulberry trees have been cut back to keep them from impinging on the trail. They produce a forest of new growth, and it is the tips of that new growth that are good to eat.   Harvest only as far down as the stem can easily be snapped with your fingernail. If it bends or creases instead of snapping, go further up toward the tip.

Incidentally, there is some pretty ridiculous stuff on the Internet to the effect that mulberry leaves will get you high or the water from cooking them will. Utter rot.  This is one of those unfortunate cases of one writer printing a piece of misinformation and dozens of others picking it up as gospel.  I have been eating young mulberry tips for decades, and nothing remotely interesting has ever happened as a result. Euell Gibbons ate them, Samuel Thayer eats them,they are used as a tea throughout Southeast Asia,  and there is no reliable report anywhere of them causing hallucinations. You must always do your own due diligence and make your own decisions, but I simply don’t worry about it.

For a quick lunch for two, I gathered a double handful of mulberry tips. I washed them and cut them in fine cross sections of less than a quarter inch, chopping a large bunch at a time.     Then I considered what else to add.

I could’ve used sorrel for a tart element, but since the leaves on my petit syrah grapevine are young and tender, I decided on several of them.  Wash them, stack them, roll them up like a cigar, and sliver them very thin with a sharp knife.

For flavoring, garlic is always a favorite of mine, and right now the garlic is forming bulbs but they are small and the skin is still young and tender. I pulled an entire head since they are mild this early, peeled off just the toughest outer layers, and sliced the rest finely in cross section and chopped it. The material that would later become the skins is full of allicin, and is very desirable.  But I also wanted some herbal flavor, so I grabbed the top of one of my bronze fennel plants. At this time of year, when it is getting full and bushy, bronze fennel is so ornamental that I can hardly stand to use it, but it tastes good so I try to overcome my scruples.

I decided that I wanted a texture element, and this time of year my favorite crisp texture is the scapes of last year‘s leek plants.

Cut them before the bulb on top begins to open, peel off the very tough outer skin, and then use a vegetable peeler to get all stringy bits off.

As I got ready to cook,  I decided to cut the stalks in quarter inch  cross sections because it would go better with the other textures. The taste of leek stalks is soft, oniony, and sweet.

First heat a skillet over medium heat.  Then add your oil of choice. I used a mixture of olive and avocado oil.  When the oil is hot, put in the chopped garlic, leek stalk pieces, and fennel.  Sauté until the garlic looks cooked. Add the chopped mulberry leaves and grape leaves, and because the texture of mulberry leaves tends to be dry, I added a quarter cup of water at this time.  Add salt to taste, and sauté until the greens are cooked to your liking and any added water is cooked away but the greens aren’t too dry. Personally, I like tree greens a bit on the done side, since they tend to be a bit chewy when cooked al dente.   Taste for seasoning, and then set your greens mixture aside in a bowl, reheat the skillet, put in a knob of butter, and scramble whatever you think is the right number of eggs for two people.  When cooking for my husband and myself, I always use a mixture of three eggs and three additional egg yolks, beaten together with about a tablespoon of cream.  When the eggs are scrambled and have less than a minute left to cook, return the greens to the pan and stir the mixture up together, but you want discrete lumps of egg to remain among the greens.   Serve onto plates, grind over fresh pepper to taste, and salt as needed.

Besides mulberry and  grape leaves, I’m giving thought to other climbing perennials or trees that might be useful for greens.  I have a linden tree that I planted specifically for greens, however the texture turned out to be somewhat mucilaginous and if there is one thing I dislike, it is what my husband calls the “mucoid food group.“  They are fine in a salad when young, but I don’t care for them cooked at all.  I am beginning to eye the shoot tips on Siberian elm trees that have been cut back. My goat and chickens eat them in huge quantities, and maybe I could too,  so I have been searching for data, especially because this is an enormously prolific trash tree in my area.  According to the website Eat the Weeds, run by the prolific and reliable Green Deane, the very young leaves of both Siberian elms and Chinese elms are edible and can be used interchangeably with each other. So I will be trying that in the future. I’ll report back.

Ditch Dinner, with notes on blue mustard

My home area near the Rio Grande has an elaborate venous system of acequias, the irrigation ditches that move water out to farms and fields. Further south, they make local agriculture possible. Even now that my area is urbanized, the ditches are lifeblood. They maintain our water table, and the dirt maintenance roads along them are walking paths where we enjoy fresh air, exercise our canine companions, and encounter our neighbors. For me, there’s an added dimension. They are kept dry in the winter, and the east or south-facing side side of the banks are where the earliest greens appear. By scrambling to the bottom of the dry ditch and walking along the bottom, I can harvest greens growing halfway up the steeply sloping bank, where dogs can’t urinate.

The first plant to appear, often in February, is tumble mustard, also known as London rocket. It is a very hot member of the mustard family, and I don’t much care for it in any form, but the amazing John Slattery can tell you more about its culinary uses: https://www.desertortoisebotanicals.com/blogs/news/urban-foraging-for-london-rocket. Despite my disinterest in it for table use, I gather bushels of it for my chickens, who adore it. Within a couple of weeks I’m gathering eggs with the deep gold carotenoid-packed yolks that I associate with the growing season. So the ditch banks benefit my chickens directly and me indirectly in the earliest weeks of the season.

This week the dock plants on the ditch banks have leaves 6-8”long and are ready to harvest. I made a greens cake based on green onions and dock greens, using five eggs and five egg yolks for an 8” square pan. The flavorings were thyme and black oil-cured olives. The cheese was a grass-fed cheddar. It was utterly delicious but needed a side salad to brighten up the plate and provide even more greens. Enter blue mustard.

By this time the banks have large patches of blue mustard, Chorispora tenella. It’s shown above in flower, which is when you are most likely to recognize it for the first time. I haven’t seen it in foraging books and I have no clue why, because it’s delicious. The young leaves and stems are tender when gathered less than 6-8” high, and have a delightful tiny nip of the characteristic mustard flavor without getting carried away. They are fine cooked but lose their character. Salad is the way to go. Look for dense patches where the plants are shading each other’s stems, and cut off the top 3” with scissors. If the plant is forming buds it is past its tender best and should be left to seed itself for next year. Wash and dry your blue mustard, combine with a few other mild tender shoots ( I used bladder campion shoots,) dress with a good red wine vinaigrette, and dinner is served.

I have moved some blue mustard into my yard too, which germinates later than the acequia population and extends the season a little. It’s pretty in the blooming stage but gets weedy and unattractive when forming seed pods. This is one for the weed patch, not the front yard.