Monday, May 15, 2006

Chop to It

A few weeks ago I was invited to join some friends for a delicious, delightful, Chinese feast. This was not the first time I had enjoyed Chinese food with friends. A few things made this banquet different from others i have attended:
  • much of the food was fresh and home cooked
  • it was a perfect spring day and didn't conform to normal time passing rules. it was if time didn't exist.
  • it was covered in the washington post in an article called chop to it
In addition to being a talented cook, Anne McDonough is also a fun-to-read-writer so i won't write to much more on the experience, except to say that it was wonderful and i was honored to be able to attend.


For archival purposes here is the column (sans pics):

Chop to It

From Chili Eggplant to Chicken With Snow Peas, Creating a Chinese Feast

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006; Page M01

Hey, you, the one in the mood for Chinese: Step away from the takeout menu.

Whipping up a Chinese extravaganza may seem complicated, but it's really all about the prep work. This time you'll be the one wielding the cleaver, firing up the wok and creating a killer Sichuan chili sauce with a kick just slightly tamed by sugar -- a sauce I learned to make through one-on-one cooking lessons while studying abroad in Harbin, China. While my classmates boned up on Chinese politics, I was taught to transform ragtag vegetables into tantalizing made-for-chopsticks tidbits. With fresh ingredients and a well-stocked condiment shelf, you too can re-create favorite restaurant picks -- and sometimes best the pros' efforts. (Free delivery just doesn't make up for the zestless pallor that takeout seems to take on.)

Now, that's my view on ordering in. Armed with my beloved wok and several home-style recipes, I had a group of nine hungry guests to convince of the same. They had come for a banquet. I glossed over that they were also going to be my lab rats. My plan: I would create two dishes, as well as order both of them from two different restaurants. My guests' comments, and the leftovers, would be the verdict.

See how the entire feast came together below.

A Chinese meal should be a balance of textures and flavors. We needed a soup: Definitely hot and sour, floating with chewy Chinese mushrooms, bamboo shoot slivers and tiny cubes of fresh tofu. We had the spicy quotient covered with eggplant with chili sauce plus chilled chili cucumbers; the rest would be sweet or salty or light. Chicken with snow peas, bok choy with mushroom sauce (a vegetarian version of oyster sauce), green beans with cashews, pork buns, scallion pancakes and white rice rounded out the table.

Diet friendly? Not in the least. But what's a few thousand calories among friends?

-- Anne McDonough

THE PREP


In China, shopping meant fresh tofu, still-warm eggs and leafy greens spilling over makeshift counters at outdoor stalls. In Washington, I strap on a backpack and head to Kam Sam (300 N. Washington St., Rockville, 301-315-9558), the Chinese grocery that's about an eight-minute walk from the Rockville Metro on the Red Line. Every ingredient you need for this meal can be found there; many of them can also be found at Whole Foods and other Western supermarkets. (Chopstixguide.com lists other area Asian grocery stores that might also carry these items.)

One of the reasons I find Chinese cooking so appealing is that hours ahead you can take out your aggressions on the carrots, red peppers -- anything other than meat that needs to be made into smaller pieces -- and fill bowls piled high with raw ingredients. I scan for anything that shows up in multiple dishes, such as fresh garlic, ginger and scallions, and prepare them at the same time.

It's also forgiving: While the recipes here include measurements, once you get in the swing of things you'll just line up all of the condiments next to the stove and add a dash of soy sauce here, a gush of black vinegar there, tasting as you cook until you've created the exact flavor you're looking for. Baking it ain't. (Another bonus: I came up with a combination of vegetarian and meat dishes, but all of the latter can be adapted to be entirely vegetarian.)

THE PARTY


The cooking itself doesn't need to start until the gang's all there, which is great when you have friends with an elastic sense of time. Party-saving caveat: Choose at least one dish that can be served cold or at room temperature. I made the spicy cucumbers in the morning and left them in the fridge until dinnertime. (Dice 'em, salt 'em, strain 'em in the sink for about 15 minutes, then transfer to a serving bowl and add chili oil with red pepper flakes, rice wine vinegar and a touch of sugar.)

For sides, look for dishes so simple no recipe is even required: Bok choy, tossed with garlic and a mushroom or oyster sauce, stir-fries to perfection in about three minutes. (I like baby bok choy, which, as its name suggests, is a smaller version. It's a bit sweeter, too.) Green beans are a snap -- stir-fried with diced red pepper and a mixture of soy sauce, Chinese mustard, brown sugar and cooking wine. Toss in some cashews just before serving.

I set the scene with chopsticks (everything tastes better with chopsticks, and wooden are infinitely easier to work with than plastic), soup spoons, small plates and smaller green bowls either for the soup or to fill with rice. The dishes arrived at the table as they were prepared, family-style; each guest took a plate and a soup bowl, and served themselves. We went the full buffet route, piling up our plates and then scattering around the room, some of us hitting the floor.

"These things are delicious," law librarian Fiona Clem said of the scallion pancakes; I chose not to reveal that they were store-bought (see "Time-Saving Tips," right). The pork buns, served in the bamboo steamer they were prepared in, disappeared. And as for the green beans with cashews, American University sophomore Matthieu Desselas's opinion summed up the group's reaction: "It was a pleasure to eat your beans."

THE TASTE TEST


Now for the reason we'd convened: The (highly unscientific) taste test to see if what my kitchen produced rivaled the corner takeouts -- or if I suffered delusions of grandeur.

We put two dishes to the test. The first was my favorite to eat in China and one that appears on most Western menus as "eggplant in garlic sauce," though I prefer to call it a chili sauce. I've ordered it in at least six provinces (though sadly never in Sichuan, the province of its provenance), sometimes barreling into restaurant kitchens to see how it's prepared.

Three versions -- two ordered in, one homemade -- went on the table at the same time. The difference was apparent; my version had shredded carrots, bits of fried tofu and pieces of eggplant with brilliantly purple skin. And "it's got a snap to it," as Z... Teutsch, a research analyst with the Service Employees International Union, said. Desselas, pointing to the takeout versions, commented that "those two have normal-looking eggplant with a sugary sauce. They're kind of mushy. This one has so much more taste and texture." The homemade eggplant flew off the table. No one seemed to have gone back for seconds of the others.

Score one for the home cook.

Dish number two was the chicken with snow peas, a mild entree that I thought would be a good counterpart to the eggplant's spice. One of the restaurant dishes looked exactly like the homemade version, except for its limp snow peas (ours were bright green and just barely tender). The other used shredded chicken instead of bite-sized pieces. To my eyes, shredded meat looks like worms, but several of my guests preferred it. The fresh snow peas and crunchy water chestnuts in the homemade got the thumbs up. Equal amounts of each dish were left over.

Overall, the party was success. The fact that putting it together was a snap, well, let's just keep that wicked little secret to ourselves, shall we?


Chili Eggplant

Sunday, May 14, 2006; Page M04

This is adapted from a recipe for yuxiang qiezi -- so-called "fish-flavor eggplant" -- passed along by my cooking instructor in Harbin, China. If you remember to do it, use the white parts of the scallions at the beginning of the recipe and add the tender green parts at the end, with the carrots -- though it's no big deal if you forget and add all of the scallions at once. All ingredients can be added to taste. This is a spicy dish -- but if it's too spicy, add more soy sauce or sugar, and if it's not spicy enough, up the garlic chili sauce.

Sauce

3 to 4 tablespoons chili garlic sauce

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine

2 tablespoons black vinegar*

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1/4 cup light brown sugar (may substitute granulated sugar)

Combine the ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Eggplant

1 to 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

4 Chinese eggplants (may substitute Japanese), cut into 1/4 -inch slices on the diagonal

3 tablespoons sesame oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped ginger root

2 scallions, white and tender green parts, separated and chopped

8 ounces cooked pork, diced or shredded (may substitute 8 ounces fried tofu, cut into bite-size pieces)

4 ounces bamboo shoots, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon cornstarch, mixed with 1 1/2 tablespoons water

2 large carrots, shredded (about 1 cup)

Have ready a large plate lined with paper towels.

Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or deep-walled saute pan over medium-high heat until it is sizzling hot. Add the eggplant in several batches, letting one batch fry for about 2 minutes before transferring to drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Discard the oil. (For firmer eggplant, omit the frying step and toss the sliced eggplant into the wok just after the sauce is added.)

Return the wok to medium-high heat. Add the sesame oil, garlic, ginger and whites of the scallions; stir briskly to combine. Add the sauce to the wok, stirring to combine. (If using eggplant that is not fried, add it here and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes.)

Add the cooked pork and the bamboo shoots, cooking for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the fried eggplant and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes. Tilt the wok to the side so the liquid comes together at the bottom; add all but 1 teaspoon of the cornstarch mixture to liquid, stirring constantly until the sauce has thickened and coated the vegetables and pork.

Taste and adjust seasonings. If after 1 minute there still seems to be a lot of liquid, add the remaining 1 teaspoon of the cornstarch mixture, stirring to combine. Add the shredded carrots and scallion greens, and stir to coat with sauce. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Per serving: 497 calories, 21 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 30 g fat, 49 mg cholesterol, 5 g saturated fat, 671 mg sodium, 11 g dietary fiber

*NOTE: Black vinegar is made from glutinous rice and malt. It can be found in specialty Asian markets. Though brown rice vinegar has a different flavor, it can be used as a substitute and may be easier to find.


Hot and Sour Soup

Sunday, May 14, 2006; Page M04

This variation is not as thick as the hot and sour soup found at your corner Chinese takeout. The amount of hot chili oil called for here gives this dish a medium kick; adjust the amount to turn the heat up or down a notch.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups dried Chinese mushrooms

4 cups vegetable broth (may substitute chicken broth)

6 to 8 ounces firm tofu, cubed

1/2 cup bamboo shoots, cut into thin strips

2 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoon black vinegar *

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoons hot chili oil, or to taste

2 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed with 3 tablespoons water

In a medium bowl, cover the dried mushrooms in boiling water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain, reserving half the liquid (discard the rest), and cut any large mushrooms into bite-size pieces. Set aside.

In a large pot over medium-high heat, bring the vegetable broth to a boil. Add the mushrooms and reserved mushroom liquid. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and add the tofu and bamboo shoots, cooking for 1 minute. Add the cooking wine, soy sauce, both vinegars and the hot chili oil. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cornstarch mixture and stir to combine; remove from the heat when the soup has thickened to your liking. Serve hot.

Serves 4.

*See note in the Chili Eggplant recipe.

Per serving: 255 calories, 10 g protein, 46 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g saturated fat, 1,022 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber

Adapted from "The Ultimate Chinese and Asian Cookbook," by Linda Doeser (Hermes House, 2003).


Chinese Made Easy

Sunday, May 14, 2006; Page M04

Kitchen Essentials

Here are some great items to have on hand when setting up your kitchen; all can be found at most Chinese groceries, and Hecht's carries many of them.

  • A wok is essential. Yes, you can substitute a deep saucepan if necessary. But woks are a cheap investment, and you'll notice the difference in the taste and amount of time it takes to prepare your food.
  • A rice cooker takes the mystery out of making perfect, steaming jasmine rice. They start around $25 and climb quickly; I prefer ones with steamer inserts so you can prepare other foods such as dumplings at the same time as the rice.
  • If your rice cooker comes with inserts, this is more of an indulgence than a necessity, but I love my bamboo steamer . Line them with lettuce before filling with dumplings or buns to be steamed, and they're pretty enough to go right to the table.
  • Go for wooden chopsticks and enamel chopstick rests .
  • A hand-held strainer , a flat wooden spatula and an extra set of wooden chopsticks that you reserve for cooking make stir-frying and deep-frying a snap.
  • Stocking Your Pantry

    If you keep these ingredients and condiments handy, you can create Chinese dishes whenever the mood strikes.

  • Chinese cooking wine.
  • Soy sauce.
  • Black vinegar.
  • Peanut oil, sesame oil and chili oil (a combination of oils floating with red pepper flakes). Altering the type of oil can create a completely different taste.
  • Vegetable or canola oils. Use them for deep-frying.
  • Chinese mustard.
  • Chili garlic sauce.
  • Oyster sauce. Kimlan makes a wonderful vegetarian version (made from mushrooms) that goes perfectly with any leafy greens.
  • Water chestnuts and bamboo shoots (several 8-ounce cans of each).
  • Cornstarch. It's the thickening agent that is the key to transforming a thin broth of soy sauce, black vinegar and cooking wine into a delectable sauce worthy of your menu. Make a water-and-cornstarch mixture, add it to hot liquids that are still over a hot burner (stirring immediately), and use less than you think you need.
  • Time-Saving Tips

    Here are some of my favorite time-saving but delicious ways to cheat when putting on a Chinese meal.

    Chinese groceries sell fried tofu (in blocks, in triangles and in little squares that look like soft pillows and solid cubes) for about the same price as the fresh tofu. All you do is open the package, chop the tofu into smaller pieces if you like, and throw it in the stir-fry.I once tried to make scallion pancakes ; they didn't turn out so well. Now I buy them (in packages of six, below, which you can fry with a tiny bit of sesame oil, slice in pieces and serve). Put them out with a mixture of soy sauce, Chinese mustard, black vinegar and chopped scallions, and you're golden.Wrapping dumplings is one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen; it's also a great way to keep your guests occupied and out of the kitchen. Frozen wonton wrappers, round or square, taste as good or better than homemade wrappers, and last pretty much forever. Move them from the freezer to the fridge the morning of your dinner party.As a vegetarian, I'm not so fond of cooking meat. I've come around to serving chicken, but for pork I look to the (from what my guests tell me) absolutely delish frozen pork mini buns carried by Chinese groceries. They come about 25 in a package; steam them for 25 minutes and serve them right away.If you don't have a rice cooker, or when the top to your rice cooker goes missing (as mine did right before the party), order in some white rice . Just don't let the delivery guy see what you've got going in your kitchen.

    Setting the Scene

    Besides Kam Sam Supermarket , where you can pick up some accoutrements along with your groceries, these stores offer some fun ways to decorate.

    Ching Ching Cha (1063 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-333-8288) sells Chinese teas and tea services galore. We loved their turquoise tea cups (below, $50 for four) and serving trays in vibrant orange, green and red ($138).The gift shop at the Freer Gallery of Art (Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW, 202-633-4880) sells incredibly imaginative teapots done in Yixing style, such as the laughing Buddha (left, $64) and gnarly tree ($102) pots.

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