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, 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.