Saturday, November 28, 2009

Chinese Dinner in the Wilds of Montana

I'm home for Thanksgiving and wanted to make something for my family. Turns out they're my most critical audience to date, which is probably good for me.

14-Year Old Sister: What is that?

Me: Chinese food

14-Year Old Sister: Are you going to put rice in it or something?

Me: Chinese people don't mix their rice in with the dishes, they eat it in separate little bowls

14-Year Old Sister: It looks weird.

Me: It tastes good.

14-Year Old Sister: What is it? Some kind of salad?

Me: No, salads aren't usually cooked.

14-Year Old Sister: So it's just vegetables in a bowl?

Me: Is that OK?

14-Year Old Sister: It's weird.

Another challenge I faced was the fact that I'm in the Wilds. Now, truthfully, I don't think we can call anywhere that you can buy chingensai the "Wilds." However, I had forgotten the challenges of living in Montana since I've been off to school in the magical land of Asian grocery stores. It doesn't make things impossible, but it makes them a little pricier. I cooked this same meal last week for my friends at school and it cost me $14 for everything. (Granted, I used my own rice) Here, I paid $26. Which is still pretty good for a meal for 8 people. I had to buy Sun Luck brand, though, which hurt my soul a little bit.

This is tonight's recipe

A note about my cooking blog: I generally don't use recipes. Unless I'm baking, where chemistry matters, I do a lot better shopping for quantities I've got in mind and buying whatever is on sale/fresh where possible. To communicate this the best I can in a blog format I have decided to take pictures of what I bought and told you how much it made. (This is way better than shopping for 2 1/4 cups of rolled oats anyway.) So tonight's recipe made 3 dishes for 8 people and consisted of:
  • Sushi rice (calrose rice is actually my favorite, but I didn't want to buy 10 pounds so I paid a little more for a little tub of sushi rice. I think writing the word "sushi" on anything increases the price $2)
  • 1 package of tofu
  • 1 bottle of black bean & garlic sauce. It's very cheap if you find it at an Asian grocery - I haven't noticed a difference between Chinese, Korean or Japanese varieties. And all they had here was Sun Luck, in the "Ethnic Foods" aisle right between the chow mein noodles and the taco shells, and it was just fine.
  • 5 bell peppers - red and green. Festive!
  • Sesame oil. See above - it tastes just fine from the American grocery store, but you'll find it a lot cheaper at an import market. If you're going to cook a lot of Asian, invest in a nice big bottle. Kadoya is a brand I really like, but again, buy whatever is the best deal.
  • Soy sauce. Did you know that the stuff you get in the little Kari Out packets from Chinese restaurants isn't even soy sauce? Kikkoman has been trying to get exclusive labelling laws - apparently the American brands aren't the same at all, and that's why La Choy is only 2 bucks... it's just salty water. Salty water with carcinogens. (Jennifer 8. Lee rocked my world; take it from me, if you only ever buy Kikkoman from here on out the world will be a better place.)
  • 1 small head of Napa cabbage (白菜). I only used half of it, though.
  • 4 chingensais (小白菜; チンゲンサイ) - some people call it baby bok choy; others give various variations on "Chinese cabbage"
  • 1 leek
  • A couple pounds of fresh green beans. Could have bought more - there were no leftovers.
Things I had at home and ended up using included:
  • Flour
  • Salt
  • Oil for frying and deep frying (vegetable, canola, whatever - even though sesame oil is delicious, it is A GARNISH! We do not cook in sesame oil or it burns. We pour it on afterwards like a liquid candy.)
  • Garlic powder (fresh garlic would have been better)
  • Red pepper flakes (or, you know, anything spicy)
  • Corn starch
This made three dishes: tofu in black bean sauce, spicy green beans, and Chinese cabbage with leeks. But you can use the cooking methods for whatever vegetables are fresh and cheap. Even tomatoes. Chinese people are awesome.

What we used for the tofu in black bean sauce - the signature dish

The first job is to deep fry the tofu. First, start a few inches of oil heating in a small saucepan. Medium high is good. I like to use firm tofu, but you can use softer varieties for a slightly different outcome. Cube it, and then dust it lightly in flour.

This is the point where my dish failed a little for the evening: usually, right after you coat the tofu in flour, it should go straight into the hot oil. But my mom had been helpful and taken the oil off the heat so it didn't overheat while I thought it was heating up and when the tofu was ready, the oil was cold again. I then had to wait for it to get hot enough again, and the tofu soaked up the flour and turned into a sticky mess. It ended up tasting just fine, but didn't have the lovely golden brown coats it should have, and the texture lost a little because of that.

Meanwhile, while your tofu's frying, chop your bell peppers into pieces about an inch long & wide. Don't ever cut anything too small to pick up with chopsticks. That's the secret to Chinese cooking - remember, we don't have steak knives at the table, but we don't have spoons either. 80% of your prep time is chopping, and that's how we show our guests we love them. Chopping.

The tofu frying to a not-so-beautiful, not-so-perfect crispy loveliness. It never gets perfectly crispy; it's done when the flour coating starts to turn golden. Keep your oil pretty hot or this takes longer than it should.

While the tofu's still frying (I had to do two batches in my little pot), start stir-frying the peppers. Nothing but oil, and when they start to get tender, add the black bean sauce. I added three huge spoonfuls this size. Maybe that was excessive... no, no it wasn't.

This is what the sauce should look like. This is nothing but the moisture from the peppers and the black bean sauce, which starts out as a paste.

Stir this around occasionally, and meanwhile start chopping your other vegetables. This is actually best if someone who loves you like your mama is helping you cook. She chopped the leek and chingensai (front bowl) and half of the napa cabbage (back bowl) into chopstick-sized pieces. Meanwhile, I had my little brother wash and pull the stems off the ends of the green beans, which is all that those need.

This is the point at which I took out the tofu. Remember, this is slightly Fail Tofu. It's usually lovely little golden cubes. I just lift them out with a slotted spoon and stick them straight in the wok with the peppers and sauce. They don't even need to cook very long after that - just stir them around gently so they're all sauced up and your tofu in black bean sauce is done.

After that's ready, use your other giant frying pan for the green beans. Oh wait - you only have one frying pan and it wasn't even big enough for the first dish? That's OK. We're pioneers. We'll use a big soup pot. Someday when my prince comes he'll bring me a wok.

Pretend the soup pot is a wok. Heat some oil in the bottom just until it smokes and throw the green beans in. These are a dish that is most delicious the more oil you have going on, so don't be shy. I don't think I have a picture of this step, but you also should add some water because green beans are a vegetable that needs a little help getting soft - green beans and asparagus and broccoli and carrots and other hard vegetables - while you're stir frying you want to occasionally add a half cup or so of water and cook it out. The vegetables will steam as the water steams out of the wok.

This is how we make the green beans delicious. Soy sauce, garlic powder (though fresh mashed garlic would have been lovelier) and red pepper. I've also used laoganma. Life is beautiful. Oh, and don't forget to top it off with sesame oil!)

OK, for the final dish we want to prepare a corn starch slurry. When I'm cooking multiple dishes that I want to have that lovely thick slimy Chinese sauce that we all love, I make a big glass full of this and throw it in at the end of every dish. In this case, this is enough for one dish. Start with that much corn starch (like in that photo there) and add that much cold water (like in that other photo there). Stir it up with a spoon and save it by the stove until the very end.

The cabbage/leek dish is going to have a light sauce. I start by stirfrying it in my
soup potwok and then add some water. With the green beans we added the water to steam then - in this case we don't really need to, but we want a little more sauce so we can make the thick sauce at the end.

We add a little bit of soy sauce, but we don't want it to be too dark. So I just flavor it the rest of the way with salt. This is one of those dishes that people usually ask "what spices do you have in here?" and I say "soy sauce, salt and sesame oil" and they don't believe me. The leek adds a lot of flavor of its own, though. Anything in the onion family - Chinese chives are fantastic as well, or just onions if you're up for chopping them. To tell the truth, I started buying leeks when I was too lazy to chop onions and I've never regretted it.

Adding the sesame oil - look how much sauce there is in this one compared to the others. Cabbages are juicy little guys! And then adding in the corn starch slurry at the end - this all cooks very fast, and just stir it around at the end until the sauce is thick and slimy.

This is where your 14-year old sister says "What is that, a salad? Just vegetables in a bowl? Weird."

And here we go! Relatively quick, if you've got people to help you chop, and very very tasty. The green beans won the popular vote, though the tofu in black bean sauce is always a champion. I tried to tell my family that real Chinese families eat their rice in individual bowls and just eat the dishes with their chopsticks out of the serving bowls in the middle of the table, but they had already had too much foreign culture for one night and they insisted on mixing everything together and putting it on top of the rice. It's OK - we are in the Wilds, after all.

Overall, a successful meal, even though the tofu was a texture fail. And as we all know, bad Chinese food is infinitely better than no Chinese food at all.

This post wouldn't be complete without a shoutout to my Chinese homegirls who taught me how to cook and, more importantly, that food equals love. I love you and miss you all!

Qiao Jing, Jo, Jenny and Dong Mei

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