Posts Tagged ‘Chinese cooking’

Using What You Have V: More About Garlic Scapes

I’ve posted before about garlic scapes, and it occurred to me this spring that I had a little more to say. I see garlic scapes being sold at markets that are large spirals with several loops, and while these are pretty to look at and play with, I personally don’t think of them as edible. Good scapes are young, just a foot or so longer than the garlic plant below,  and form 3/4 of a circle or less, as you see above. Snap them off rather than cutting; they should snap like a bean when bent double. Then, snap off the upper blossom sheath, which is quite tough. The stem under it is tough too. The point where an actual snap happens might be 4-5” below the blossom swelling, meaning that of a foot-long scape, you might end up with 7” of good edible portion.

Next, decide how you’re going to cook it and how long the sections should be. I decided to illustrate the most difficult case to deal with: sections a bit over an inch long for a stir-fry. The reason this is difficult is that if you wanted to chop 1/4” sections the toughness of the outer skin would be irrelevant, but for these longer sections, tough skin has to be dealt with or unpleasant threads will stick between your teeth. Fortunately the solution is pretty quick and very easy. Snap the scapes into sections about 1.25” long, and wherever skin makes itself known, peel it off.

When you see “scape bark” like this, peel it off the sections on each side of the break.  If a long tough piece peels off, I use my thumbnail to start peeling the rest of the outer skin on that scape. It sounds tedious but doesn’t really take that long and produces a much nicer finished result.

In less than 15 minutes you have the situation shown above, where some scapes are completely peeled and the ones with more tender skin are still completely green. They’re ready for the wok now. Or cook them any other way you choose, but I find the fierce heat of the wok especially useful at tenderizing any remaining tough skin.

Rather than give a recipe for fried rice, I decided to link to the excellent and infinitely variable Pork Fried Rice recipe on The Woks of Life. This is a terrific blog that I’d like my readers to know about. I will only add that I often make meatless versions and that I think 2-3 teaspoons of oyster sauce is an essential addition to the “sauce” that’s added to the rice as it cooks. The garlic scapes got a couple of minutes in the hot wok by themselves with just oil and soy sauce, then another minute with some finely sliced tender greens from yesterday’s weed post, before the final combining took place, and a good drizzle of Asian sesame oil was added just before serving.

I’ve been on a carbfest since the shutdown, but here I tried a half-and-half mixture of leftover rice and leftover cauliflower rice. That wasn’t ideal, in my opinion, and I’ll probably go back to real rice.

 

Living in Interesting Times: Using What You Have II


This weekend I was corresponding with a friend about marinated tofu, and it caused me to think about the importance  (especially now) of using what I produce. On a half-acre suburban lot, I won’t be growing my own staples or raising large meat animals. Nor is growing grain rice or soybeans feasible. But I do have chickens, and in season they lay like crazy and the eggs start to pile up. I started to wonder if I could make a proteinaceous food somewhat akin to tofu out of eggs or egg yolks.
My concentration is on yolks because they are the most nutritious and delicious part of the egg. So if you have any belief that yolks aren’t good for you, this post won’t be for you. But to me, a wasted yolk is truly unfortunate.

My first attempt was to beat up 20 egg yolks with a little salt and bake them in an oiled loaf pan at 225 degrees until set. After cooling, I sliced pieces off the resulting yolk cake and used them like tofu in a stir-fry, seen at the top of this post. The result was a little bland and chewy, in my opinion, but my husband liked it okay. He is very polite. The problem is that yolk cake is very dense and seasonings don’t penetrate it well. If the yolk mixture was preseasoned in some way I might like it better, but I decided to experiment with other cooking methods.

Currently, I’m using an omelette  method. I beat up 10 yolks and one whole egg with a pinch of salt and heat up my 12” nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When the skillet is hot I put in a glug of avocado oil, stir it around, and pour in the yolk mixture. I turn the heat to medium, let it cook until partially set, and flip it over with a spatula. Cook on the other side for a minute or two until just set in the middle and turn it out onto a plate to cool. When cool, I cut it into strips about 2”long and a quarter inch wide. They can be stored in a ziplock in the refrigerator for a few days. They are a good size to add to a stir-fry in the same way that you would use meat, or to add to a fried noodle dish like this one. I especially like them with thin noodles, and if I plan to cook them with broader noodles I cut the yolk strips to match the width of the noodles. Put them in a soy marinade the same way you would treat meat, and add at the same stage of cooking that you would add pork strips but cook them for a shorter time. They absorb flavors better that the yolk cake described above.

Any leftover yolk strips that are still good and unspoiled make great dog treats.

The whites aren’t wasted when I use yolks, and neither are the shells. I put them in a microwave-safe bowl, chop them up some with a stick blender, and cook them a few minutes in the microwave to make a concoction that we call “chicken cake.” The hens gobble it up and get back some of the protein and minerals that they put into making eggs.

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: 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.”