Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Chinese House Dinner, Southern Style

The way the Chinese house works, is: you pay a little extra every month and then with that money they buy food for you to eat together five nights a week. Whoever is in your "language house" is who you cook and eat with - in the case of Chinese, we've just got one girls' apartment and one guys' apartment - 10 people. I used to live in the French House, which was like 30 people and cooking dinner was intense but you only had to do it once a month or so. This is smaller and nicer, and you cook more often - once every two weeks. The ostensible purpose of this is to have time together to converse in the language you're learning. The real purpose, we all know, is to amaze your roommates with your culinary prowess and find new and exciting edible creations to soothe the savage hordes. It's a game, you see, and if the boys compliment your food, you win. (Somedays I think I may be the sole inhabitant of my little planet.)

Today's recipe. This feeds 10 people!

This week it was me again - I plan the meal and Tommy helps me cook. Next week on Monday, Tommy will plan the meal and I help him cook. Tommy is a good sport. He makes things like enchiladas, and my job is to open the cans of sauce. I make things like Thai spring rolls and his job is to de-vein the shrimp and chop the cabbage and help me roll the rice wrappers. This week, though, we went easy on Tommy and made one of the easiest meals of life - beans. And since they were real beans, I soaked them the night before and then cooked them in slow cookers all day so when he showed up to help me, the only thing left to do was the:

Cornbread! More on this later.

But let's start with the beans. Here is my slow cooker. You will notice that it's not so much a slow cooker as a rice cooker. This is because one time when I lived in Japan I found a Brazilian grocery store and they sold giant bags of lovely dried beans. Not sweetened, slimy little Asian beans. These were proper feijão - black beans and pinto beans and blackeyed peas. You know what else they sold? CUMIN. My little heart was so happy. So I bought as much as possible and went home and realized we had nothing to cook them in. But we did have a rice cooker. Turns out if you soak them the night before and then throw them in there with cumin and onions and salt and cook it on the brown rice setting and let it sit on "warm" all day, you come home to a glorious pot of beans. And then you serve it on top of a bowl of rice and put it in front of your Japanese companion and she bursts into tears. "I'm sorry! I just can't eat salty beans. Too gross! I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." And then you learn a cultural lesson. But at least now you know that rice cookers can cook beans and a couple years later when you have one crock pot but you need two, you need not fear. Also, I got this rice cooker at Costco and it was only 30 bucks and it's glorious and doesn't leave your rice soggy at all. If you're in the market, look it up.

The next important friend we need to make is Cumin. Some people buy cumin in small bottles and measure it with teaspoons. This is just silly. Cumin is your BFF. You can put it in just about everything you ever create to make it taste 1) Mexican, 2)beany, 3)Middle Eastern or 4)sassy, and you need to have large, large quantities of it on hand. I own a cumin shaker - it's that little tupperware thing on the right. That way I can buy cheap, cheap cumin in bags and then keep it in that shaker. The two cheapest places to buy it are: the Mexican aisle and the Asian market. If you're lucky enough to live somewhere glorious that has a dirty little import store like Many Lands, you can buy giant bags of Laaxmi brand Indian spices that will satisfy your need for copious amounts of cumin. (And amchur powder. Though I don't yet know what the need is, I do have the copious amounts on hand, should it arise.) If not, and you live in most of America where your local chain grocery store carries real Mexican things from Mexico, you can usually get little plastic bags with paper headers full of the comino molido we all love and pay something ridiculous like 69 cents. Never, never buy cumin in a little vial in the spice aisle. It will cost you like 5 ridiculous dollars.

No matter how much cumin you put in the beans to start with it is never enough. This is how much cumin I put in the one pot. This is the third time I did this, however. You just keep adding cumin and salt. How this worked was, I soaked the black beans (and it was 3 pounds total - the amount that's missing from the bag of beans in the first photo. 3 pounds for 10 people is way too many beans, by the way) overnight the night before. Then I woke up Monday morning, split them in half into a crock pot and the rice cooker, covered them each with water maybe 30% deeper than the beans, chopped 3 onions and threw them into the 2 pots, and added salt and cumin and chili powder. Then I set the crock pot on low and the rice cooker on "brown rice" and went to class. I came home 4 or 5 hours later and the beans were cooked but still a little firm. At this point I tasted the broth and found that it tasted like neither cumin nor salt. So I added more of each. It's best just to do it by taste at this point because however much I could tell you to add, someone would think it was too salty and I would think it wasn't salty enough. At this point I also found a little bag of black pepper and had pepper guilt, so I threw that in as well. This turned out to be a little bit of a mistake. See, I kind of hate black pepper but I realize that it makes things taste good so when I get pepper guilt I have to throw it in. The one pot of beans, though, turned out too spicy and I think it was the dang black pepper that threw it over the edge.

Part of soothing the savage hordes involves giving them some sort of meat, but I try to do it sparingly to not fuel the fire of American diet ridiculousness. So to one of the pots of beans I added bacon - one package, cut up like this. They loved it. I had thought about frying it first, but I ended up just putting the pieces straight in and I think the fat made it taste better and that was the key, apparently, to Win Beans.

At this point I wondered if anyone had ever tried shabu shabu with bacon. I imagine it's only a matter of time.

Here's my beautiful side dish that made the meal worthwhile but wasn't hard enough to merit any description of its own: spinach. It was fresh spinach, but there wasn't enough (there never is) so I added frozen spinach. I seasoned it with salt, lemon juice and butter. It's good to mix in with the beans or to just eat and make Popeye jokes in Chinese, apparently. Which turns out surprisingly funny.

But now onto the pièce de résistance, the cornbread. Here's where I make a shameful but brazen admission: I STOLE IT FROM THE SMITTEN KITCHEN. Verbatim, just about. But what are food blogs for if not plagiarism, I ask you? I found their recipe for caramelized onion and goat cheese cornbread and
bastardizedadapted it to fit our level of
povertyfrugality. It turned out fan-frickin'-tastic. (Did you know that that's the only infix in the English language?)

The first frugal measure was to use cream cheese instead of goat cheese. Because I had decided to make this at the last minute and because my personal chauffeur only goes about as far as the average bicycle, all I had access to was the local college convenience grocery store. But it's OK, we all survived. Also, I don't have an electric beater. And the whisk had disappeared. So I beat it by hand with the short little whisk that goes in an electric beater. Hence the... um... delicate texture.

Also, I substituted brown sugar for regular sugar. At this point, though, I tasted the batter and it wasn't recognizably sweet so I committed a cardinal sin and added more sugar. But by now I was out of brown sugar. The shame!

I probably added a half cup of sugar extra, and this was a double recipe. So, um.... double the sugar it calls for. And it wasn't even that sweet to the taste!

I almost put it all in one 9 x 13 inch pan, because the batter was really thin and I didn't think baking soda-leavened things would rise that high. I was very wrong. I spied on them in the oven and look how big they got!

I ended up cooking them for slightly over 40 minutes, making dinner start late (dangit! Again!) But they were so very, very beautiful I think I was quickly forgiven.

And we all ate, and were edified and rejoiced together.

Even Piao Liang, who has the most discriminating of tastes. Everyone of course ate the ones with bacon, leaving a LOT of baconless leftovers, but the meal went off very well and I was happy to eat it again, pepper overdose and all, for breakfast.


  1. I want your spinach. Now. Come make me some spinach!

  2. Also, have I ever told you about my wierd thing with cornbread, aka I cannot eat it because of a completely irrational phobia of weevils? That and I don't think it tastes good. But people usually can forgive me if they think its the weevil thing...

  3. Yeah, I don't know that I could forgive you if it weren't for the weevils, because thinking that cornbread doesn't taste good is TOTALLY irrational.

  4. There are actually a few commonly-used infixes in English, even beyond the obvious one you're only intimating by euphemism. But, like that one, they're all swear words (or their euphemisms).