Monday, December 28, 2009

Fish-fragrant aubergines (yu xiang qie zi)

Forgive the sloppy plating, as we were eager to eat while the dish was still steaming. Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuanese cookbook, Land of Plenty, came in the mail today so I'm continuing my Chinese food bender. Memories of this dish from her first visit to China were largely what induced Dunlop to return to Sichuan province to live. No actual fish is involved — the dish is so named because it uses the sweet and sour flavorings of traditional Sichuanese fish cookery.

Dunlop suggests Lee Kum Kee brand chilli bean sauce, while I used the wonderfully fragrant Ming Teh broad bean paste with chilli.

1. Cut four Asian eggplants in half lengthwise and then in thirds crosswise. Mince four garlic cloves and 1 T. ginger. Slice the green parts of 4 green onions into thin rings.

2. Heat peanut oil in a wok for deep frying until just beginning to smoke. Add the eggplant in batches and deep fry for 3-4 minutes until slightly golden on the outside. Drain on paper towels.

3. Pour off the oil, wipe the wok with a paper towel, and return it to a high flame. When it starts to smoke, pour in 2 T. peanut oil and 1 1/2 T. Sichuanese chilli bean paste. Stir fry for 30 seconds, then add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry another 30 seconds. Add 1/2 c. chicken stock, 1 1/2 T. sugar and 1 tsp. light soy sauce.

4. Lower the flame, add the fried eggplants and let them simmer gently a few minutes to absorb the flavors. Dissolve 1 tsp. cornstarch in 1 T. water, sprinkle this over the eggplants and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Stir in the green onions and leave a few seconds until the onions have lost their rawness. Turn off the heat, stir in 1 tsp. sesame oil and serve.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dan Dan noodles (dan dan mian)

Since reading Fuchsia Dunlop's delightful memoir of eating in China, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, I've been wanting to make Dan Dan noodles, the fiery Sichuanese street snack to which she devotes a chapter of the book. Here's how she describes the noodle shop where she ate daily in Chengdu, razed in the early 2000s to make way for modern development:

The Dan Dan noodles — well, they were undoubtedly the best in town, the best anyone had ever tasted. They looked quite plain, a small bowlful of noodles topped with a spoonful of dark, crisp minced beef. But as soon as you stirred them with your chopsticks, you awakened the flavors in the slick of spicy seasonings at the base of the bowl, and coated each strand of pasta in a mix of soy sauce, chilli oil, sesame paste and Sichuan pepper. The effect was electrifying. Within seconds, your mouth was on fire, your lips quivering under the onslaught of the pepper, and your whole body radiant with heat.


Dan Dan noodles have become quite popular and appear on most Sichuanese restaurant menus, but Dunlop says she never tasted any as good at those at that Chengdu shop. After months of wheedling bits of information from the ornery owner, she managed to reproduce the dish and published the recipe in her book.

First, a note about ingredients. I was able to find everything at a small Chinatown grocery in Boston except for ya cai, Sichuanese preserved mustard greens. I'll keep looking for next time, but for now I made the rather lame substitution of kimchi, which I realize probably has a totally different flavor profile but worked nicely enough. Fresh Chinese flour-and-water noodles can be found in the refrigerator section, sometimes labeled "plain noodle." Sichuan pepper is a dark red peppercorn, confusingly labeled on my package as "dried prickly ash."

So how did it turn out? The sauce's spice was just barely tolerable, but what actually pushed my limits was the extreme salt. Mixing in more noodles (I had boiled the whole 16 oz. package even though Dunlop's recipe calls for only 200 grams) made this a hotly delicious if still quite salty dish. I've altered the recipe to my taste below, as well as converted from metric units. Remember, if you want the authentic version, you need to use half the noodles (or make twice the sauce).

1. Roast 1/2 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns in a wok until brown and fragrant and crush them to a powder. Mix the pepper with 4 T. chilli oil, 2 T. sesame paste, 2 T. light soy sauce, and 1 tsp. dark soy sauce. (Dunlop calls for 3 T. light soy sauce and 2 tsp. dark, but I found this too salty.) Divide the sauce among 2-4 serving bowls.

2. Snip 3 Sichuanese dried chillies in half and discard the seeds. Heat 1 T. peanut oil in a wok over medium heat. When the oil is hot but not yet smoking, add the dried chillies and 1/2 tsp. whole Sichuan peppercorns. Stir-fry until the oil is fragrant, taking care not to burn the spices. Turn the flame up, add 2 T. ya cai (Sichuanese preserved mustard greens) and continue to stir-fry until hot and fragrant. Add 1/4 lb. of ground beef and 2 tsp. light soy sauce and stir-fry until the meat is brown and crisp, but not too dry.

3. Cook a 16 oz. package of fresh Chinese flour-and-water noodles according to package directions (boiling for 3 minutes should do it). Add a portion to the sauce in each serving bowl. Sprinkle each bowl with meat mixture and serve. Before eating, give the noodles a good stir until the sauce and meat are evenly mixed.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Pot roast

For such a humble dish, it's remarkably easy to screw up pot roast. Pot roast cooks through braising, which uses slow, low heat and moisture to transform cheap, tough cuts into fork-tender meat by breaking down tough connective tissue. But if your heat isn't low enough, the meat toughens and dries out, hardening into a gristly, inedible mess. For whatever reason, I've only ever had this problem with beef pot roast. My pork braises are far more forgiving, coming out perfectly no matter what I've done. This is my slightly Frenchy recipe for pot roast, which rewards the wait with a tender, flavorful and satisfying dinner. Serves 6-8.

1. Cut 1 3-4 lb. chuck roast in half and salt both pieces all over. Heat a few T. of oil in a Dutch oven or large, heavy pot on medium high. Sear the two chunks of meat all over. Let each side rest without moving for a couple minutes so a brown crust develops.

2. Remove the meat and add 1-2 sliced onions and a few sliced celery ribs. Saute until brown and deglaze the pan with half a bottle of red wine (go ahead and start drinking the rest).

3. Now add a 15 oz. can of whole peeled tomatoes, 2 T. Dijon mustard, 1 T. brown sugar, 1 T. Worcestershire sauce, 6-10 garlic cloves, 1 bay leaf, salt and pepper, crushed pepper flakes, fresh rosemary leaves and a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Return the meat to the pot. Get the liquid just bubbling, cover the pot and turn the heat as low as it will go. The liquid should simmer very gently but not boil.

4. After 2-3 hours, add peeled sliced carrots. Turn the meat, which will have released lots of liquid. Simmer one more hour or until meat is fork tender and stir in a cup of chopped parsley. Serve over potatoes or noodles.

Friday, December 25, 2009


The other night I made gaprow, the Thai stir-fry of minced meat, chilli and basil. This actually was not a dish I learned at Thai cooking school, but the recipe was in this month's Cook's Illustrated. Unlike in the classic stir-fry method where you add cold oil to a scorching hot pan, it involves sauteing the aromatics over low heat at the beginning to infuse the meat with full flavor during the stir fry. This was such an easy and beautiful meal, to table in less than 20 minutes. The recipe is supposed to serve four — maybe alongside other Thai dishes — but two piggies would eat it all up.

1. Chop a cup of Thai basil leaves, 5 or so garlic cloves, and 6-10 green or red Thai chillis (green is hotter, red prettier in this dish) in the food processor. Transfer 1 T. of this mix to a bowl and stir in 1 T. fish sauce, 1 T. oyster sauce, 1 T sugar and 1 tsp. white vinegar. Put the rest of the basil mix in a wok or skillet. Do not wash food processor.

2. Now cut a pound of chicken breast into smallish pieces. Pulse these in the food processor with another T. of fish sauce until the meat is chopped small (but not as fine as commercial ground meat).

3. Slice three shallots thinly and add these and 2 T. veg oil to the wok. Heat over medium-low, stirring, 5 minutes to brown garlic and shallots.

4. Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the chicken. Stir-fry for 2-3 minutes, breaking up the meat until just traces of pink remain, then add reserved basil-sauce mixture and cook another minute until chicken is done. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in another cup of basil leaves until just wilted and serve.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Eat at Uncle Monkey's

One of my most beloved childhood pastimes was playing restaurant. This game involved devising prolix menus featuring "delicious, scrumptious, mouthwatering, aromatic" crab cakes or whatever I was serving that night. Apparently they are hiring consultants to do that nowadays. Tuesday's NYT piece on menu psychology discusses the adjectives, prices, fonts, page placement and other strategic variables that can entice diners to order an item:

People like the names of mothers, grandmothers and other relatives on their menus, and research shows they are much more likely to buy, say, Grandma’s zucchini cookies, burgers freshly ground at Uncle Sol’s butcher shop this morning and Aunt Phyllis’s famous wedge salad.

Research subjects also spent significantly more when no monetary symbols appeared on the menu, as in "14" rather than "$14." Apparently these dollar signs trigger negative emotions related to the pain of paying and induce diners to behave more prudently. Personally, I feel like seeing a simple "14" and even more so "fourteen" is a big tipoff that I'm in a fancypants type of place and about to drop a lot of dime.

What makes a chef

I called this blog Chef Monkey. Whoa, hey, isn't that kind of presumptuous? While I do a lot of cooking, I wouldn't call myself especially skilled at it. Wiki says a chef is one who cooks professionally. I'm a lapsed journalist who works at a public policy organization. Random House says it's the chief cook, especially in a restaurant or hotel, though its second definition benevolently proclaims a chef "any cook." I guess that's me.

What makes a good cook, anyway? My friends say I'm one, but that's the minimum obligation of a polite guest. My husband says I'm one, as he's happy in his position as the noncooking partner.

Is a good cook someone who perfects their own recipes? I've successfully innovated before, but I'm not above consulting the Food Network website. Is it someone with superior technical skill? I'm clumsy with the knife and prone to poor timing, though the results are usually forgiving enough. Or is it just someone who consistently makes beautiful and delicious food?

While my mom is a good cook, I grew up eating a lot of fast and frozen food: bacon cheeseburgers, microwave entrees in trisected trays, add-milk-and-butter boxed noodles. I'm now an acolyte of the slow/natural food thing, but until the age of 21 I had never cooked anything in my life. I had a college boyfriend who taught me to bread chicken breasts, pour cream of mushroom soup on top and microwave for six minutes. He also made this salmon dish that involved spreading the fillets with a thick layer of mayonnaise and baking at 350. When I got my first apartment I flirted briefly with vegetarianism so I wouldn't have to touch slimy raw meat.

But I love to eat, so slowly my cooking evolved. I'm most familar with classic French techniques, but I make a few mean Cajun dishes and more recently have been focusing on Thai and Chinese. I'm reading cookbooks and food memoirs. I took a two-day cooking class on a recent trip to Thailand, and start a six-week course on basic technique next month.

This blog will chronicle my kitchen experiences (admittedly, one purpose is so that if I suddenly die, husband will know how to make all his favorite meals) and cover restaurant visits as well as nongastronomic pet interests: books, politics, news.

Gotta go  tomatillo stew's simmering on the stove. More soon.