Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Veal stew with vinegar and green beans

This dish is a takeoff on Marcella Hazan's lamb stew with vinegar and green beans. I made the substitution after buying humanely raised stewing veal from a nice man at the Roslindale farmer's market, and damned if it wasn't some of the best, most flavorful meat I've ever had. When I sauteed the onion, I threw in some lovely green garlic from the farm as well. Nutty brown rice was the perfect foil for the tangy, juicy meat.

1 pound fresh green beans
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 pounds stewing veal or lamb, cut into cubes
1 medium onion
salt and black pepper
1/2 cup good red wine vinegar

1. Snap the ends off the green beans, wash them in cold water and set aside. Chop the onion.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot on medium high and slip in as many pieces of meat as will fit loosely without crowding. Brown the meat deeply on all sides, then transfer to a plate and repeat.

3. When all the meat is browned and set aside, put the onion in the pot and cook, stirring, until it turns pale gold. Return the meat to the pot and add salt, pepper and the vinegar. Bring the vinegar to a brisk simmer for 30 seconds, turning the meat and scraping loose brown bits from the pan with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat down to cook at a slow simmer, add the green beans with a little more salt and pepper, and cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar.

4. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours until the meat is very tender, then serve. The juices in the pot should be sufficient, but if you find they are drying up, replenish with 2-3 T. water. At the end, the only liquid remaining in the pot should be the oil and natural cooking juices.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A better burger

When it comes to burgers, my mentor is Kenji Lopez-Alt, burger guru for Cook's Illustrated and the burger blog A Hamburger Today. In his quest to perfect burger science, Kenji estimates he's made 1,100 burgers over the last 2 1/2 years, averaging 1.2 burgers per day. His wife actually forced him to move apartments because the smell of burgers permeated the walls. Read Kenji's 10 tips on making a better burger here, the most important of which I've distilled into three:

1. Grind your own beef. Buying supermarket ground beef is a crapshoot. You don't know when it was ground, what part of the cow it came from, or how many different cows are in the package. What's more, it's typically overprocessed, leading to a dry, rubbery burger. You can ask your butcher to grind you meat, or you can do it easily enough with a food processor. When grinding your own meat, you take control of the flavor and fat content. In Cook's Illustrated, Kenji recommends a blend of sirloin tips and short rib for the ideal balance of fat and beefiness; he has also devised what he calls the Blue Label Blend of sirloin, brisket and oxtail.

2. Handle the burgers as little as possible. This runs counter to many people's practices, but working the meat causes proteins to cross-link like tiny strips of velcro, making the finished burgers denser and tighter with every manhandling of the grind.* Kenji has found that the best and juiciest burgers result from grinding the meat directly onto a cold baking sheet, then gently coaxing it into loose patties without ever picking it up until just before cooking.

3. Salt meat only after patties are formed. Salt dissolves muscle proteins, turning the burgers from moist and tender to springy and sausage-like. The effect is dramatic, as you can see here. Of course, after you have formed your patties, salt and pepper them liberally just before cooking.

*You may be wondering at this point how you are going to add your favorite spice blend without working the meat. I used to believe that a good burger incorporated fresh herbs, garlic, etc. But once you begin grinding your own meat, you'll find that the beefy flavor shines on its own with embellishment. Kenji says: "Adding junk like onions, herbs, breadcrumbs, anything to your ground meat not only forces you to over-handle the mix, but it instantly relegates your burgers into the "meatloaf sandwich" category. If you absolutely must add junk to your burgers, mix it with the cubes of beef (but don't add the salt yet!) prior to grinding."

Without further ado, monkey's backyard burgers, guided by Kenji Lopez-Alt:

1. Put your food processor in the freezer. Cut 10 ounces of sirloin tips and 6 ounces of boneless short ribs (do not trim the fat) into 1-inch cubes, place on a baking sheet and freeze 15-25 minutes. During this time you can assemble fixings and get the fire lit.

2. Coarsely grind the meat in two batches, using about 15 pulses and redistributing the meat around the bowl as necessary to ensure it is evenly ground. Overturn the meat onto the cold baking sheet without touching it. Inspect the meat carefully, discarding any long strands of gristle or large chunks of hard meat or fat.

3. Gently separate the ground meat into three equal mounds. Without picking it up, shape each mound into a loose patty, leaving edges and surface ragged. Season the top of each patty generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. Flip patties with a spatula and season the other side.

4. Grill the burgers over direct heat about 4 minutes a side for medium rare. Brush sliced onions with olive oil and salt and grill those if you like (these will take longer than the meat). Add cheese to the burgers in the last minute of cooking, place onto buns and garnish as you like. I like greens, tomatoes when in season, grilled onions and Wicked Natural ketchup.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Spaghetti carbonara

Spaghetti carbonara was my favorite food when I was little, and it's easy to see why. Cheesy pasta flecked with bacon is like ambrosia to little-kid palates, and probably yours as well. I highly recommend this dish for parents. Both you and your kids will love it, and it takes 20 minutes from start to finish. As you may know, the sauce comes from eggs, not cream.

Adapted from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking:

1. Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, cut 8 ounces of guanciale, pancetta or slab bacon into 1/4-inch slices. Smash and peel four garlic cloves. Grate 1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano and 1/4 cup romano plus extra for serving. Finely dice 2 T. Italian flat-leaf parsley.

2. When the water is boiling, add a pound of spaghetti and cook al dente (about 9 minutes). While the pasta cooks, heat 3 T. olive oil over medium high and saute the garlic cloves until they are deep gold, then remove the cloves from the pan. Add the chopped meat and saute until its edges begin to crisp. Add 1/2 cup white wine to the pan, cook 1-2 more minutes and turn off the heat.

3. Crack two eggs into the large bowl you will use to serve the pasta. Beat lightly, then add the parsley, the two cheeses, salt and pepper and mix well. When the spaghetti is done, drain, add the the pasta to the bowl, and toss well. You may want to reserve a small amount of the cooking water to add in case the mixture is a bit dry. Now add the contents of the bacon pan to the bowl and toss once more. Serve with extra grated cheese and black pepper.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Twice-cooked pork (hui guo rou)

This dish, which literally means "back-in-the-pot meat," is what Fuchsia Dunlop calls the most famous and profoundly loved of all the dishes of Sichuan. This combination of intensely flavored pork and fresh green vegetables is a source of great nostalgia for Sichuanese people living abroad, she says, and it often seems to be tied up with elderly people's childhood memories. It also happens to be a favorite of my friend Jesse, who is living in China for a year. So it's fitting that I used Jesse's present of fermented chilli bean paste for the first time to make hui guo rou.

Twice-cooked pork is so named because the pork is first boiled, then fried in a wok with seasonings. Sichuanese cooks use a cut of pork thigh that is split between fat and lean, with a layer of skin over the top. Dunlop suggests pork belly as a substitute, but I managed to find a cut of well-marbled skin-on pork at the best Chinese grocery in town, Ming's Supermarket in the South End. I have no idea whether it was thigh meat, as the label simply said "pork meat with skin," but it worked great. The amount of fat is gross while you're preparing it, but like with bacon, most of it oozes out during the wok-frying. Dunlop also substitutes leeks for the traditional green garlic, assuming it's hard to find, but green garlic is in season now and in abundance at the farmer's markets — get it while you can.

Jesse, I'll make this for you.

3/4 pound fresh, boneless pork belly with skin attached
6 stalks of green garlic
2 T. peanut oil
1 1/2 T. chilli bean paste
1 1/2 tsp. Sichuanese sweet bean paste
2 tsp. fermented black beans
1 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. white sugar

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pork, return to a boil, and simmer gently until just cooked, 20-25 minutes. Remove the meat and refrigerate for a couple hours or overnight to firm up the flesh. This makes it possible to slice it thinly without the fat and lean parts separating.

2. When the meat is cold, slice it thinly. Chop the green garlic diagonally at a steep angle into thin, 1 1/2 inch long pieces.

3. Heat the wok, then add the oil and pork pieces, stir-frying until the fat has melted out and they are toasty and slightly curved. Push the pork to one side of the wok and tip the chilli bean paste into the space you have created. Stir-fry for 30 seconds until the oil is richly red, then add the sweet bean paste and black beans and stir-fry another few seconds. Add the soy sauce and sugar, tossing well.

4. Add the green garlic and toss until it is just cooked. Turn onto a serving dish and eat immediately with lots of white rice.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Bucatini all'Amatriciana

This is my first foray into my newest cookbook, Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I've learned a lot about cooking already from reading this excellent book. Hazan has very specific ideas about how things should be done in the kitchen. I particularly love this passage on making pasta:

"In the sequence of steps that lead to producing a dish of pasta and getting it to the table, none is more important than tossing. Up until the time you toss, pasta and sauce are two separate entities. Tossing bridges the separation and makes them one. The oil or butter must coat every strand thoroughly and evenly, reach into every crevice, and with it carry the flavors of the components of the sauce. When you add the sauce, toss rapidly, using a fork and spoon or two forks, bringing the pasta up from the bottom of the bowl, separating it, lifting it, dropping it, turning it over, swirling it around and around.

Once the pasta is sauced, serve it promptly, inviting your guests and family to put off talking and start eating. The point to remember is that from the moment the pasta is done, there should be no pauses in the sequence of draining, saucing, serving and eating."

My Amatriciana sauce was immeasurably enhanced by South End Formaggio's house-cured pancetta, bursting with the flavors of fine pork, pepper and white wine.

-2 T. olive oil
-1 T. butter
-1 medium onion, chopped fine
-a 1/4 inch thick slice of pancetta, cut into thin strips 1/2 inch wide and 1 inch long
-1 1/2 cups canned imported plum tomatoes, drained and cut up
-chopped red hot chilli pepper
-3 T. freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
-2 T. freshly grated romano cheese
-1 pound bucatini

1. Put the oil, butter and onion in a saucepan and turn on the heat to medium. Saute the onion until it turns pale gold, then add the pancetta. Cook for 1 minute, stirring once or twice, and splash in some white wine if you like. Add the tomatoes, chilli pepper and salt, and cook in the uncovered pan at a steady, gentle simmer for 25 minutes. Taste and correct for salt and hot pepper.

2. Cook the pasta al dente, then drain and immediately toss with the sauce. Add both cheeses and toss thoroughly again. Feeds 4.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Liuyang black bean chicken (liu yang dou chi ji)

Tonight we're having four friends to dinner, so I'm attempting to execute four Chinese dishes at the same time, including one I've never made before: Fuchsia Dunlop's Liuyang black bean chicken. This dish makes generous use of the richly savory black fermented beans, a specialty of Liuyang in Hunan province. I actually bought two incorrect products by mistake before triumphantly locating the beans on my third attempt at the Chinese grocery. They came in a little bag, not a jar, labeled "salted black beans." These are actually soybeans preserved in salt, not the black beans you know from Mexican food, and need to be rinsed before use for cooking.

1. Cut a pound of boned, skin-on chicken thighs into bite-size chunks. Put them in a bowl with 1 T. of light soy sauce and mix well to marinate.

2. Peel the cloves from a whole head of garlic, cutting any very large ones in half. Peel and thinly slice a 2-inch piece of ginger. Cut the green parts of four scallions into 1 1/2-inch lengths. Rinse 4 T. black fermented beans in a strainer.

3. Heat 2 cups of peanut oil for deep frying to 350-400 degrees. Add the chicken and stir-fry until it has changed color, then remove from the wok with a slotted spoon and allow the oil to return to 350-400. Return the chicken to the hot oil and deep-fry again until tinged golden. Remove and set aside.

4. Drain off all but 3 T. of oil from the wok, then return it to a medium flame. Add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry a few minutes until they are fragrant and the garlic cloves are tender. Add the black beans and stir-fry until fragrant, adding a splash of Shaoxing wine. Now shake in some red chilli flakes and stir-fry a few moments until they have lent their heat and red color to the oil.

5. Return the chicken to the wok and toss it in the fragrant oil, splashing in 2 T. clear rice vinegar and salting to taste. When everything is sizzling, throw in the scallions, and stir a few times until barely cooked. Turn off the heat, stir in 1 T. sesame oil, and serve.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Spicy cold noodles with chicken slivers (ji si liang mian)

These cold, refreshing sesame noodles are a sweeter cousin of the more fiery dan dan noodles — and a great way to use up leftover chicken meat. They use the same essential seasonings in different proportions, but the heat of these noodles is tempered with sugar, garlic, bean sprouts and white chicken.

Adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty:

1. Cook 1 pound of fresh Chinese flour-and-water noodles 2-3 minutes until just al dente. Drain and rinse them with hot water, shake them in a colander and spread them out on a dish towel to dry. Sprinkle a bit of peanut oil over the noodles and mix it in with chopsticks to prevent them from sticking together.

2. Meanwhile, blanch the bean sprouts for a few minutes in boiling water, then refresh in cold water and drain well. Whack a leftover cooked chicken breast with a pestle or rolling pin to loosen the fibers, then tear into little slivers. Peel 3-4 cloves of garlic and squash them with the pestle. Thinly slice four scallions.

3. Now combine the following: 2 T. sesame paste, 1 1/2 T. dark soy sauce, 1/2 T. light soy sauce, 1 1/2 T. Chinkiang black vinegar, 2 T. chilli oil, 1 T. sesame oil, 1/2 T. sugar, 1/2 tsp. ground roasted Sichuan pepper, and the crushed garlic cloves.

4. When the noodles and bean sprouts are completely cool, pile the bean sprouts at the bottom of several serving bowls. Add the noodles, pour the seasonings on top, and top each bowl with a pile of chicken slivers and a scattering of scallions. Allow your guests to toss everything together at the table.Link

Monday, May 24, 2010

Shrimp scampi

Even though about five people read it, I had been updating this blog every day like a good blogger. I fell off the wagon a month ago after my trip to Portland, Oregon, where I ate such delicious foods at each meal that I became overwhelmed by the prospect of documenting them. I still plan to do so without too much more delay, but today I'll ease back into posting with something simple. Even people who don't cook should learn to make this dish. It's a universal pleaser, and hardly anything could be easier.

1. Cook a pound of spaghetti al dente in lots of heavily salted water and drain, reserving a little of the pasta water. Meanwhile, peel and devein a pound of shrimp and sprinkle with salt.

2. Peel and chop half a head of garlic and half a bunch of Italian parsley. Heat a swirl of olive oil and a large knob of butter in a large saute pan, then add the garlic, half the parsley and a bit of salt. Saute until it releases its aroma, being careful not to burn. Turn the heat down to medium-low, add the shrimp and a dash of white wine and saute until just pink. Squeeze with the juice of half a lemon.

3. Add the pasta to the pan, tossing well and moistening with reserved pasta water if needed. Stir in the rest of the parsley and a generous dash of red pepper flakes and serve.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pork slivers with sweet fermented paste (jing jiang rou si)

I know, its name is so appealing. But that's the translation Fuchsia Dunlop gives to this rustic Sichuanese stir-fry, which turned out so pleasantly mild that I'll cook it up next time we host chilliphobes. The key ingredient is sweet bean paste, found in the mysterious jar aisle of any Chinese grocery.

1. Cut 12 ounces of boneless pork loin into thin slices and then into long, thin slivers, ideally about 1/8 thick. Place in a bowl with 2 tsp. cornstarch, 2 tsp. cold water, and 1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine and stir in one direction to combine.

2. Cut the whites of 4 scallions into 4-inch sections and then lengthwise into fine slivers. Dilute 5 tsp. Sichuanese sweet bean paste with 1 T. of water to give it a runny consistency.

3. In a small bowl, combine 1/2 tsp. sugar, 1/2 tsp. soy sauce and 2 T. chicken stock.

4. Heat 1/4 cup peanut oil over high, swirl in a bit of oil, and stir-fry the pork briskly. After a minute or two, when the slivers have separated and are becoming pale, push them to one side of the wok and let the oil run to the other side. Place the sweet bean paste in the space you have created and stir-fry for 10-20 seconds. Then tilt the wok back to normal, mix the paste with the pork slivers, and add the soy sauce mix. Stir well, turn onto a serving plate, and garnish with the scallion slivers.

John and I are off to Portland, OR tomorrow, so watch this space for our yummiest finds.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Genghis Khan beef

This colorful stir-fry adapted from Grace Young's cookbook packs a nice spicy punch. I've found that trimmed chuck steak turns out excellently in stir-fries. Commonly used in braising, this inexpensive cut has enough intramuscular fat to stay tender in the hot wok.

1. Cut 12-16 ounces of beef into 1-inch cubes. In a medium bowl, combine 1 tsp. each of dark soy sauce and light soy sauce. Add the beef, stir to coat, and marinate while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. Thinly slice a bunch of garlic cloves and pull the stems off 6 red Thai chillis. Slice the whites of 8-10 scallions into 2-inch pieces and cut a few of the green sections into slivers for garnish.

3. In a small bowl, combine 2 T. hoisin sauce, 1 T. sambal olek, and 1 tsp. sesame oil.

4. Heat a wok over high and swirl in a bit of oil. Add the beef, spreading it evenly in the wok, and let it cook undisturbed for a minute to begin to brown. Then stir-fry the beef 1-2 minutes until just browned all over and transfer to a plate.

5. Wipe the wok with a paper towel and swirl in a bit more oil. Add the garlic and chillis and stir-fry a few seconds until fragrant. Add the scallion whites and stir-fry another minute. Return the beef to the wok, add the hoisin mixture and stir-fry 30 seconds. Turn onto a plate, garnish with the scallion greens, and serve with steamed rice.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Banana bread

I don't bake. We don't have any of the equipment (stand mixer, beaters, pans) and I don't really enjoy sweets, certainly not enough to justify the calories. Also, I'm not very good. I just can't muster the precision and attention to detail good baking requires. But when friends Kate and Tim crashed here for the night, I figured I could muster a simple quickbread. Or so I thought, until I absentmindedly dumped the sugar in with the flour rather than creaming it with the butter. Once this little mishap was sorted, it actually ended up pretty good.

This is based on the Banana Banana Bread recipe from allrecipes.com, which is apparently a popular standard with 5,000 reviews and 80,000 saves. Wow.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 and lightly butter a 9x5 loaf pan.

2. In a large bowl, mix 2 c. flour, 1 tsp. baking soda and a pinch of salt. In a medium bowl, mash 5-7 ripe or overripe bananas.

3. In a third largish bowl, cream together 1 stick of butter and 3/4 cup brown sugar (or less if your bananas are superripe). Stir in the mashed bananas and 2 beaten eggs. Shake in whatever appropriate spices you have: in my case, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

4. Stir the banana mixture into the flour mixture until just moistened. Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for 60-70 minutes until a butter knife comes out clean.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Drumsticks with caramelized onions

This was the dinner I made the night we got our cat. He was still a little shy, but kept trying to jump into my lap during dinner. I didn't give him any because onions are bad for cats. He jumps in my lap all the time now, so I'll never know if it was because he smelled chicken.

Adapted from Grace Young's Breath of a Wok:

1. Slice one onion and a few scallions. Thinly slice a few garlic cloves and mince a piece of ginger.

2. Heat a wok until smoking, then swirl in a bit of oil. Add the garlic, ginger and onion, season with salt and white pepper, and stir-fry over medium heat 4-5 minutes until light golden. Transfer to a plate.

3. Add a little more oil to the wok, then add 6 or so chicken drumsticks, spreading them evenly in the wok. Pan-fry 20-25 minutes over medium heat, turning the drumsticks until browned on all sides and the chicken is cooked through.

4. Add the cooked onions, the scallions, 2 T. oyster sauce, and a drizzle of sesame oil, stirring over low heat until well combined. Serve with white rice.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pioneer Woman v. Thomas Keller

In this Slate article, Jennifer Reese pits two cooks offering folksy homestyle recipes against one another: the Oklahoma populist Ree Drummond, aka Pioneer Woman, and elite restaurateur Thomas Keller. Drummond buys Reddi-wip; Keller makes his own salad croutons from home-baked brioche. Reese cooks a dinner of fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, salad and pineapple upside-down cake from each of their cookbooks.

Since Keller's Ad Hoc at Home is my current coffee table book, I was interested in the results of this little cookoff. Predictably, Keller's recipes take more work but yield food a thousand times better. Unfortunately, Reese is the only one who notices; her husband and kids are oblivious. Her son says Keller's garlicky mashed potatoes taste "weird," favoring Pioneer Woman's spuds made with cream cheese. Fried chicken is fried chicken, says the boneheaded husband, who actually prefers the saccharine stickiness of canned pineapple to Keller's fresh-fruit version. Reese concludes that Keller's is the superior book, but the one she needs is the one that helps her put a "good enough" dinner on the table.

I say: Why bother cooking if you're only going for good enough? Frying chicken and baking biscuits is a mess whatever shortcuts you take, so instead of settling for Drummond's chicken that tastes like KFC, you might as well go out and get a bucket for $9.99. Thomas Keller's fried chicken may be my next cooking experiment.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I had really good memories of our trip to this Southern restaurant shortly after it opened in Cambridge's Inman Square a year ago. The place was nearly empty and we stayed for a few hours, trying practically everything on the menu, most notably the jambalaya of the day and a wonderful catfish entree.

After we went to visit our new cat in his foster home near Inman a couple weeks ago, we decided to celebrate the impending adoption with a return trip to Tupelo. A year has obviously treated the place well, as we had a 30-40 minute wait for a table. We passed the time in the charming back parlor with watermelon sangria and great beer from Abita, a Louisiana brewer making a comeback after its facilities were damaged in Hurricane Katrina.

Starters were the bourbon jalapeno ribs and the awesome fried oysters with pickles and remoulade, followed by a big bowl of gumbo and the catfish over collards and cheddar grits. Sorry, catfish not pictured — went in my belly too fast.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fish-fragrant bean curd and dry-fried green beans (vegetarian)

In Chinese cuisine, even the vegetables are not vegetarian. I own three Chinese cookbooks, and the vegetable recipes are nearly always cooked with chicken broth (something vegetarians might want to be aware of when ordering in Chinese restaurants). I wondered what vegetarians in China do, particularly the millions of vegetarian Buddhists. I figured that a Western vegetable stock of carrots and potatoes wouldn't be quite appropriate.

Fuchsia Dunlop addresses this in one line of her Sichuanese cookbook, which says that Chinese vegetarians often make a broth out of bean sprouts, which they believe have a savory flavor. So when my vegetarian friend Margaret came to lunch last weekend, I experimented with this concept on her. And it worked! I don't even like bean sprouts, but a handful sauteed in peanut oil and then boiled in water creates an aromatic brown broth.

Vegetarian fish-fragrant bean curd (so called because this method of seasoning is traditionally used on fish):

1. Heat a bit of peanut oil in a big saucepot and stir-fry some bean sprouts. Add salt and water to cover, then simmer for 20 minutes or so. The bean curd calls for only 3/4 cup, but you can make more and use it for other recipes.

2. Meanwhile, mince a generous amount of garlic and ginger and slice a couple of scallions. Cut a block of tofu into squares and drain on paper towels.

3. Heat oil in a wok and stir-fry the garlic, ginger and scallions with 2 T. Sichuanese chilli bean paste. Add the tofu and stir-fry a bit more. Add 3/4 cup of the bean sprout stock, bring to a boil, and season with 1 tsp. sugar and 2 tsp. soy sauce. Mix well and simmer on low 10 minutes so the bean curd absorbs the sauce.

4. Dissolve 1 tsp. cornstarch in a little water and stir into the sauce to thicken. Serve with steamed rice.

Vegetarian dry-fried green beans (maybe even nicer than the traditional version made with chicken stock and pork):

1. Trim the ends of 10 to 12 ounces of green beans. Slice 2 scallions thinly at a steep angle. Mince 3 cloves of garlic and an equal amount of ginger. Snip 8 Sichuanese dried chillis in half.

2. Heat a little oil in a wok over a medium flame. Add the beans and stir-fry about 6-8 minutes until they are tender with slightly puckered skins. Remove and set aside.

3. Heat some fresh oil over a high flame. Add the chillis and 1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry very briefly until they are fragrant but not burned. Quickly add the garlic, ginger, and scallions and stir-fry until they are all fragrant. Throw in the beans and toss. Remove from heat and stir in a bit of sesame oil.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Craigie on Main

It's evidence of how far I've fallen behind with this blog that I'm posting about John's birthday dinner two months late. For his 30th, we went to the lovely Craigie on Main in Cambridge. First up was dayboat cod cheeks with golden raisin verjus and charcuterie platter.

The mains were a luscious steak dish with marrow, corned beef cheek and sweet potatoes fries; slow-roasted salmon with Maine shrimp; and a side of duck fat Brussels sprouts.

And for dessert, peanut butter pie with banana foam.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Red-braised beef with white radish (hong shao niu rou)

We appearing to be having a last spate of winter weather here in Boston, so it seems like a good time to write about this warming Chinese beef stew. As I was making it, I couldn't help but notice how similar it was to an American pot roast. In place of oregano and bay leaf, the aromatics are star anise and Sichuan pepper. And rather than carrots, daikon radish or kohlrabi is added in the last minutes of cooking, contributing delightful crunch. Of course, with a base of Sichuanese chilli bean paste, this pot roast is decidedly hotter than normal.

Adapted from Land of Plenty:

1. Cut the beef into 1- to 2-inch chunks and salt them. Crush a 1- to 2-inch piece of unpeeled ginger with the side of a chef's knife. Cut 2 scallions into 2 or 3 sections.

2. Heat a bit of oil in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add 6 T. chilli bean paste, stir-fry 30 seconds, and add the beef. Add 1 quart beef stock, 4 T. Shaoxing cooking wine, the ginger and scallions, 2 tsp. dark soy sauce, 1 tsp. whole Sichuan pepper, and 1 star anise. Bring the liquid to a boil, skim if necessary, then simmer gently on low until the beef is tender, about 2 hours.

3. When the beef is nearly ready, trim a daikon radish or kohlrabi and chop it into chunks to match the beef. Add them to the pot and simmer until they are just tender. Salt if needed and serve garnished with fresh cilantro.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ma po tofu

Ma po tofu, my Sichuanese cookbook says, is named after the smallpox-scarred wife of a Qing dynasty restaurateur. She is said to have prepared this spicy, aromatic, oily meal for laborers who laid down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch on their way to the city's markets: "Many unrecognizable imitations are served in Chinese restaurants worldwide, but this is the real thing, as taught at the Sichuan provincial cooking school and served in the Chengdu restaurants." Indeed, this fiery dish spiked with chillis and tingly Sichuan pepper bears little resemblance to the ma po of Chinese takeouts.

The recipe calls for 1/2 cup of oil, as it's traditional to serve this dish with a good layer of chilli-red oil on top, but says it will work with as little as 3 tablespoons. I compromised with 1/4 cup of oil. It still was quite oily.

1. Cut a 1 lb. block of bean curd into 1-inch cubes and leave them to steep in very hot, lightly salted water. Slice 4 scallions at a steep angle. Grind a few Sichuanese chillis to a powder. Whisk 4 T. cornstarch with 6 T. cold water.

2. Add up to 1/2 cup peanut oil to the wok over a high flame and heat until smoking. Add 6 ounces ground beef and stir-fry until it is crispy and a little brown.

3. Turn the heat down to medium, add 2 1/2 T. chilli bean paste, and stir-fry 30 seconds until the oil is a rich red. Add 1 T. fermented black beans and the ground chillis and stir-fry another 30 seconds.

4. Drain the bean curd. Pour in 1 cup of chicken stock, stir, and add the bean curd. Mix it in gently by pushing the back of your ladle gently from the edges to the center of the wok — do not stir or the bean curd may break up. Season with 1 tsp. sugar and a splash of soy sauce and simmer 5 minutes.

5. Gently stir in the scallions. When they are just cooked, add the cornstarch mixture in 2 or 3 stages, mixing well, until the sauce has thickened enough to cling glossily to the meat and bean curd. Don't add more than you need. Finally, pour everything into a bowl, scatter with ground Sichuan pepper, and serve.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Monkey joes

I know sloppy joes are just ahead of dog food on the elegance scale, but John loves them, so they appear on the menu from time to time. I think the best recipe I've tried, if beef hash really requires a recipe, is this one adapted from the Boston Globe Cookbook. The most important step is to toast your buns so they remain a sturdy conduit for the slop.

In the photo are our friend Tim's homemade pickles, canned last summer.

1. Chop 1 onion, 1 bell pepper, 1-2 jalapenos and 4 cloves of garlic. Brown a pound of beef, drain, and set the meat aside. Add a little oil to the same pot and brown the onion and peppers 6-8 minutes until soft.

2. Add the garlic and season with salt, pepper and crushed red pepper. Stir the meat back into the pan. Add 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes with its juice, 2 T. cider vinegar, 2 T. brown sugar, 2 T. Worcestershire sauce, a dollop of brown mustard, a sprinkling of ground cloves, and a dash of liquid hot sauce.

3. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, set the oven at 375. Put 4 rolls on a baking sheet and brush their cut sides with olive oil. Toast lightly for 10 minutes or until golden.

Beef with cumin (zi ran niu rou)

I was excited when John gave me Fuchsia Dunlop's Hunanese cookbook for my birthday two months ago, but I've been cooking so much Sichuanese I had barely cracked the cover until tonight. The book says the Hunanese are known for their bold, spicy cooking. Unlike their Sichuanese neighbors, who temper their chilli spice with a touch of sweetness, Hunan people like their food unapologetically hot. Tonight I made my first Hunan recipe: beef with cumin. Dunlop says the spice is associated with the northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang, where they rub their grill meats with cumin and chillis.

Her recipe calls for 2 full teaspoons of cumin. I love bold flavors, but even I found this dish overcuminy. I have reduced the amount in my adaptation below.

1. Trim the fat from 1 pound of beef steak, such as sirloin or chuck, and cut it against the grain into thin slices. Mix 1 T. each of Shaoxing wine, cornstarch and water with 1 tsp. each of dark and light soy sauce. Combine well with the beef to marinate while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. Mince 2 T. ginger, 1 T. garlic and 2 fresh red chillis. Thinly slice 2 scallions.

3. Heat 1 1/4 cups peanut oil to about 275 degrees for frying. Add the beef and stir gently. As soon as the pieces have separated, remove them from the oil and drain well.

4. Pour off all but 3 T. of the oil. Over a high flame, add the ginger, garlic and chillis, as well as 2 T. dried chilli flakes and 1 T. ground cumin. Stir-fry briefly until fragrant, then return the beef to the wok and stir well.

5. When all the ingredients are sizzlingly fragrant, add the scallion greens and toss briefly. Remove from heat, stir in 1 tsp. sesame oil, and serve.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Spicy braised fish with whole garlic (da suan shao yu)

My Chinese cookbooks have many fabulous-looking recipes for whole fish. I have been eating fish this way since I was a kid, and it really is true that the closer the bone, the sweeter the meat. However, I had never cooked a whole fish until yesterday, when I spied some handsome red snappers on ice at the Roslindale Fish Market.

This superb recipe calls for three heads of garlic. Don't cut back on the amount, because the method of frying turns it mellow and lovely, and you'll only be wishing you had more of these sumptuous cloves on your plate.

From Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty:

1. Get a 1 1/2 pound white fish like carp, snapper or sea bass, cleaned, with head and tail intact. With a sharp knife, make shallow slashes at 1 1/2-inch intervals across the fattest part of the fish, at right angles to the backbone. These will help the flavors to penetrate its flesh. Salt the fish and rub it with 1-2 T. Shaoxing rice wine. Set aside to marinate in the wine while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. Peel the cloves from 3 heads of garlic. Mince 2 T. ginger and finely slice the green parts of 2 scallions. Dissolve 1 T. cornstarch in 3 T. cold water.

3. Heat 1/3 cup of oil in a wok over a gentle flame until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and stir-fry about 5 minutes until the cloves look slightly wrinkled and are just tender; they should remain white. Remove the cloves with a slotted spoon and set aside.

4. Drain the fish and pat it dry with paper towels. Turn the heat up to high and fry the fish until its skin has tightened. Remove and set to drain on paper towels.

5. Turn off the heat and allow the wok to cool slightly. Then add 4 T. chilli bean paste and the ginger over a medium flame and stir-fry a minute until the oil is deep red and smells delicious. Pour in 2 cups of chicken stock, turn up the heat, and bring to a boil.

6. Stir in 1 T. sugar and 1 T. dark soy sauce, then add the fish. When the liquid has returned to a boil, turn the heat down to medium and simmer about 6 minutes. Turn the fish over in the sauce, add the garlic, and continue to simmer another 6 minutes until the fish is cooked and the sauce is much reduced.

7. Transfer the fish onto a serving plate. At this point you can arrange the garlic cloves around the fish like a string of pearls, or just keep them in the wok to be poured over the fish. Add the cornstarch mixture to the liquid in the wok, stirring to thicken the sauce. Turn off the heat, stir in the scallions and 1 tsp. Chinkiang black vinegar, and pour the sauce over the waiting fish. Serve immediately with rice.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

S&I Thai

The essence of Thai food is a balance of sweet, salty, sour, spicy and, more occasionally, bitter. Unfortunately, what we get in restaurants is frequently one-dimensional simply sweet, or "level 10 spicy." Thankfully, John and I found S&I Thai, a takeout dive in Allston that cooks just like the best of what we had in Bangkok. They don't wimp on the chilli fire or any of the other taste elements that make Thai cuisine so wonderful.

Order off the pictures on the walls rather than the printed menu. If you don't know what something is, just point or ask. Be sure to get one of their "crispy pork" dishes, such as the pad ga pow moo krob pictured here. They expertly fry the fatty cuts of pork, leaving it crispy and savory, then stud it with chillis and basil. The Thai barbecued chicken with sticky rice is also to die for. Order it with a side of som tam (papaya salad).

Final note: S&I is very easy on the wallet. Entrees are $8 or $9, so go ahead, finish off the meal with a mango over sticky rice.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Genki ya

Genki Ya, the little organic place in Brookline, is my second favorite sushi bar in town. Rice choices include brown and multigrain, but we just go there because it's yummy. Spicy scallop roll above, nigiri dinner at right.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pad thai

Pad thai has gotten a reputation as the thing that unadventurous Americans always order at Thai restaurants, but it's actually an excellent dish. Who could not love comforting rice noodles and shrimp stir-fried with sweet, salty and sour flavors, topped with ground peanuts and fresh green onions?

Well okay, actually I have had a number of bad restaurant versions, achingly sweet and/or suspended in thick, gooey sauce. Kasma Loha-Unchit, a Thai cooking instructor in San Francisco, explains that the gooey restaurant texture that many Americans have come to prefer is achieved through tomato ketchup. Kasma's recipe, which inspired my version below, is drier than the typical restaurant pad thai, with a complex range of flavors and textures.

Pad thai is made with bean sprouts, which neither John nor I like. I am slightly allergic and he considers them "barely food," so I have omitted them here. If you like, add a handful to the wok in step 7.

1. Soak 1/2 pound of dried rice noodles in hot water for 30 minutes (while you do the prep in steps 2 and 3) until noodles are limp but still firm to the touch. Drain.

2. Mix 3 T. fish sauce, 3 T. tamarind juice, and 2 T. palm or white sugar. Taste and adjust seasonings to achieve a balance of salty, sweet and sour.

3. Peel and devein 1/3 pound of shrimp. Cut 3/4 cup of firm pressed tofu (found in any Asian grocery) into matchsticks. Mince 4-5 garlic cloves and thinly slice 3 shallots. Cut 5 scallions or garlic chives into 1 1/2-inch segments. Cut a lime into wedges. Crush 2/3 cup roasted peanuts. Measure out 1/4 cup dried shrimp and 2-3 T. ground chillis.

4. Heat a wok until it smokes, add a bit of peanut oil, and quickly stir-fry the shrimp just until they turn pink. Sprinkle them with fish sauce and remove from the wok.

5. Add the tofu to the wok, frying 1-2 minutes until golden. Add the garlic and shallots, then the dried shrimp and ground chillis.

6. Now add the drained noodles, tossing well with the other ingredients. Once the noodles have changed texture and softened, push the mass up along one side of the wok. Add a bit of oil to the cleared area, crack 3 eggs onto it, and scramble lightly. Once they have set, toss them in with the noodles.

7. Add the sweet and sour seasoning mixture, stirring well to coat the noodles evenly. Adjust the flavors. Add the scallions or chives, the shrimp and half the peanuts to the wok. When the greens are slightly wilted, transfer to a serving platter and garnish with the rest of the peanuts and the lime wedges.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chicken dressed two ways

In her cookbook Land of Plenty, Fuchsia Dunlop describes five different ways of dressing cold chicken meat. These sauces are meant to be a simple yet dramatic introduction to Sichuanese cuisine. She suggests serving them as appetizers or cooking a whole bird and "surprising your guests" with a choice of three or four different sauces served in little bowls around a central dish of piled-up chicken meat. While you could certainly use leftover roast chicken meat, chickens in Sichuanese cooking are always poached in water. In keeping with the Chinese obsession with uniform cutting, cut the chicken in either chunks, slices or slivers — mixing different shapes in the same dish is seen as messy and unbalanced.

Here are two of these dressings for chicken. The first, chicken slices in sichuan pepper and sesame oil sauce, is dressed with a lovely, summery sauce that uses pureed scallions and resembles pesto in consistency. The second, fish-fragrant chicken slivers, uses the same delectable flavorings as in fish-fragrant aubergines.

Chicken slices in sichuan pepper and sesame oil sauce (jiao ma ji pian):

1. Soak 1 teaspoon of raw Sichuan peppercorns for a few minutes in very hot water. Slice 1 pound of cooked chicken meat.

2. Slice the green parts of 5 scallions, then whizz them into a green paste in the food processor with the Sichuan pepper and a dash of salt.

3. Mix the scallion paste with 3 T. chicken stock and 2 T. soy sauce in a small bowl. Stir in 1 1/2 T. sesame oil. Pour over the chicken and serve, optionally, on a bed of sliced cucumbers.

Fish-fragrant chicken slivers (yu xiang ji si):

1. Cut or shred 1 pound cooked chicken meat into fine slivers and lay them on a serving dish. Finely slice the green parts of 3 scallions. Very finely mince a few cloves of garlic and an equal amount of ginger.

2. Combine 3 T. soy sauce, 1 T. Chinkiang black vinegar, 1 T. sugar in a bowl. Whisk in 2 T. chilli oil and 2 tsp. sesame oil. Add the ginger, garlic, scallions and 1-2 T. Sichuanese chilli bean paste. Mix well, pour over the chicken, and serve.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tofu with black bean sauce

If I ever fell on hard times, I would probably eat this dish at at least 3 times a week.

Block of tofu: $1
1/4 lb. pork: $1
Chicken broth: $.50
Small quantities of beans, garlic, scallions, sauce, rice: ~$1

We're talking less than $4 for a rich, delicious, fast and, as far as I can tell, healthy dinner for two. Go on, try it.

Adapted from Grace Young's The Breath of a Wok:

1. Cut a 14 oz. block of firm tofu into 12 pieces. Put them on paper towels to drain and sprinkle with a little salt.

2. Whisk 2/3 cup chicken stock with 1 T. oyster sauce, 1 tsp. cornstarch and a pinch of sugar. Slice 2 scallions thinly.

3. Rinse and drain 2-3 T. Chinese fermented black beans. Mince 3-4 garlic cloves. In a bowl, combine the beans, garlic, 1 T. soy sauce and 1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine. Mash with a fork.

4. Heat a wok on high and swirl in a little oil. Add 4 ounces ground pork, stir-frying just until cooked. Remove the meat to a bowl, keeping its juices in the wok.

5. Add the tofu to the wok, cooking a couple minutes until browned. Stir in the bean mixture and stir-fry 30 seconds until fragrant. Now stir the broth mixture and add it to the wok, stirring until the sauce thickens. Add the pork and scallions and simmer another minute. Serve with white rice.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Chicken rice, part 2

In my perhaps futile quest to replicate one of the best dishes we had in Singapore, I made chicken rice again last night. The major tweak since my last attempt was that I fried the raw rice grains in sesame oil and garlic before steaming it in chicken broth. The rice turned out fantastic — nutty, garlicky and aromatic, pretty much just as I remember. Despite gentle and careful poaching, the chicken still did not turn out as tender as I had hoped.

1. Heat 1 T. peanut oil and 1 T. sesame oil in a wok. Stir-fry 2 cups of uncooked rice with a few cloves of minced garlic until it begins to turn golden. Steam the rice, substituting chicken broth for water.

2. Crush an inch-long piece of skin-on ginger root and four cloves of garlic. Put in a large saucepan with a quart of chicken broth and simmer covered for 10 minutes.

3. Add 2 chicken breasts to the pot in a single layer. Bring the broth back up to the barest simmer and let the breasts poach gently for 10-12 minutes. Check for doneness, then slice.

4. While the chicken is poaching, peel an inch-long section of ginger. Put that in the food processor with 5 peeled garlic cloves and 6-8 red Thai chillis. Add dashes of fish sauce and white vinegar, pulse fine, and pour off into a bowl.

5. Whisk 2 T. soy sauce with 2 T. sugar in a small bowl. Slice a cucumber into long segments.

6. To serve, heap the rice into shallow bowls and arrange the sliced chicken on top. Spoon a bit of the broth on top to moisten, then drizzle with a bit of the sweet soy sauce. Pass the remaining soy sauce and chilli sauce at the table. Serve the remaining broth in small soup bowls. Feeds 2.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Chipotle seared shrimp

The more I use my wok, the more perfect it seems — ideally suited not only for stir-frying but deep-frying, braising, and seemingly every kitchen task. Its high sides let you toss food without spilling. Its round shape allows even small amounts of frying oil to pool in the bottom. Its thin, carbon-steel surface heats and cools quickly, allowing for superior temperature control. I have pans that cost five times as much, but they don't seem to come down from the shelf much these days. I find myself using it even for non-Asian dishes, including this zesty shrimp recipe adapted from the America's Test Kitchen book Cooking for Two.

This dish takes on Southwestern character with chipotles, cilantro, and avocado. Interestingly, it calls for a sprinkle of sugar on the shrimp to help with caramelization and browning.

1. Peel and devein 1 pound of extra-large shrimp. Mix the shrimp in a bowl with a dash of olive oil and pinches of sugar, salt and pepper.

2. Core, seed and chop 1 tomato (or substitute an equivalent amount of canned crushed tomatoes). Mince 2 chipotles from a can of chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. Slice 2 scallions, separating white and green parts. Mince 3-4 garlic cloves and a quarter bunch of cilantro. Dice half an avocado.

3. Heat 1 T. oil in a wok or skillet over high heat until smoking. Add the shrimp in a single layer and cooking, without moving, until spotty brown on one side, about 1 minute. Transfer shrimp to a bowl (they will be underdone).

4. Return the wok to high heat and add the tomato, chipotles, scallion whites, garlic and cilantro. Cook 1 minute, adding a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

5. Return the shrimp to the wok and continue to cook until just done, about 1 minute. Serve over white rice, sprinkled with the scallion greens and avocado. Feeds 2.