Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Consider the Eggplant

Here’s another vegetable that we sophisticated eaters now take for granted, but which was rarely seen on the tables of our youth.  In fact, I cannot remember my mother cooking eggplant, ever.  Not once.  Really.  Eggplant parm on the menus of the local Italian-American restaurants, that was pretty much the extent of my acquaintance with eggplant until sometime in the early ‘80s.  Not that I ever ordered it.  And you know, you can’t really blame American cooks for approaching eggplant a bit leerily.  After all, here was a vegetable for which all the recipes instructed you to first slice it and salt it, maybe press it, to draw out the bitter juices.  Can you blame a guy if he wondered:  Can’t we just start with something that doesn’t have bitter juices?  And while many vegetables are perfectly lovely in their raw state—tomatoes, sweet peas, green beans, sweet corn, even kale—no one’s going to be snacking on raw eggplant while prepping dinner at the cutting board.

What's great about eggplant, of course, is the way it combines with other flavors, and the creamy texture it attains when properly cooked.  I think it was ratatouille that first interested me in eggplant, then baba ganouj, but where the purple fruit really shines is in Chinese cooking, and when I say Chinese cooking I mean Sichuan food, and when I say Sichuan food I mean yu xiang qiezi, and when I say…that, I mean:  Fish Fragrance Eggplant, one of my favorite Sichuan dishes, which puts it well up there among my favorite things to eat, period.  Where the fish in the title comes from, we will probably never know.  There are theories:  that the seasonings in the dish are the same commonly used to cook fish (but I had fish prepared many different ways in Sichuan); that in land-locked areas this preparation was somehow meant to mimic seafood (but even where there are not oceans, there are lakes and rivers).  

What’s certain is that there is nothing remotely fishy about the dish.  The eggplant is first fried to soften and brown it, then a sauce is prepared, of garlic and ginger, hot bean paste, soy, vinegar, and sugar, then the eggplant is anointed with this fragrant mélange, and the result is a really quite humble dish which nonetheless bursts with a complex interplay of flavors, aromas, and textures.  Zhen hao chi!

You can make this with the larger, Italian type of eggplant, but the skinny Asian kind is best.  I really like the pale lavender-and-lilac varieties, but I've only seen the dark versions this year.  I don't have them in my garden this year; the couple of plants I purchased failed to thrive.  It has been my experience that really fresh eggplant, whether of the Italian or Asian type, isn't bitter.  I think it's the long-haul, far-from-fresh eggplant we find in grocery stores in winter, dull-skinned and soft, that tend toward bitterness, and should be avoided.    Look for eggplant that is firm and shiny-skinned.  Don't let it sit around too long; it does not keep well.

The height of vegetable season--i.e., now--is a great time to dive into Chinese cooking.  Meat is often used more or less as a seasoning in many Chinese dishes, and the multi-plate format of a Chinese meal is a wonderful way to enjoy the amazing variety of produce available right now.  Sweet corn and chiles, cucumbers, and eggplants were the stars of a recent dinner chez Ecklaw.  Since our new house has an electric range, doing a proper stir-fry is difficult.  The wok doesn't get hot enough; a big sauté pan works okay, but it's really not the same.  So on this recent evening I decided to try the live-fire method.

A hunk of old metal we found in the woods at Bide-A-Wee made an adequate wok burner cooktop.  Things were off to a good start with the corn and chile stir-fry:

But we were racing against time:

And we lost.  We got one dish done on the fire, then made a mad dash back into the house to finish cooking in the kitchen.  It turned out okay.

Sichuan "Fish-Fragrance" Eggplant (Yu Xiang Qie Zi)

If you can’t find the long, thin Chinese or Japanese eggplant, this dish can be made with regular eggplant.  If you use regular eggplant:  Trim the ends and cut the eggplant in half the long way; use a spoon to scoop out the seediest part of the center, then cut the rest into bite-size wedges.  Chopped pickled chiles are usually used in China; sambal is a more than adequate substitute.

A little bit of ground pork is often added to vegetable dishes in Sichuan.  You can omit it for a vegetarian version, but the well-fried, slightly crunchy pork makes a wonderful textural contrast to the creamy eggplant.

1 pound Chinese eggplant    
1 cup cooking oil

Trim the stem from the eggplants, cut them in half the long way, then cut on the diagonal into 2- to 3-inch pieces.  Heat a wok or heavy saucepan, then add the oil.  When the oil is hot deep-fry the eggplant slices, in two or three batches, until they are soft and just a little bit brown on the cut ends.  Drain them on a paper towel.  Pour out the deep-frying oil (you can save it to use again) and wipe out the wok.

1 tablespoon sugar       
1 tablespoon dark Chinese vinegar* (see note)
2 tablespoons soy sauce          

Mix the sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce together, and stir well to dissolve the sugar.

¼ pound ground pork  
1 ½ tablespoons minced garlic
1 ½ tablespoons minced ginger
1 tablespoon chile paste (such as sambal oelek)
1 tablespoon broad bean paste with chile
2 tablespoons cooking oil         
½ teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
2 scallions, minced

Heat your wok or fry pan and add 2 tablespoons oil.  When the oil is very hot add the ground pork and stir-fry until the pork is cooked and slightly browned,  2 to 3 minutes.   Add the garlic, ginger, and and both chile and chile bean paste, and stir fry for 1  minute.

Now add the eggplant and stir-fry for about a minute to coat the eggplant with oil.  Then stir up the soy-vinegar-sugar mixture and add it to the pan.  Stir-fry for 1 minute and then remove everything to a serving plate.  Sprinkle the scallions and Sichuan pepper over it, and serve.

* Chinese dark vinegar is not at all the same as "black vinegar," as I was reminded yesterday when I mistakenly purchased the black kind, which tastes almost like Worchestershire sauce.  The dark vinegar I usually buy has a yellow label and is called "Chinkiang Vinegar": picture of the bottle in this post from last summer. 

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, August 13, 2012

Cool As

There’s that old saying that in summer’s dog days you can sit by a country road and hear the corn grow.  Along those same lines, I do believe that I could sit myself down in a corner of my garden right about now and watch the cucumbers swell.  Not that I have the patience for that, nor do I mean to imply that our rural life is quite that somnolent.  We do have Dish TV, you know, and the New York Times, and fairly active minds.

However, it is certainly true that a pinkie-sized cuke the evening before can easily grow to kosher dill-size by the next morning.  Also, as all you gardeners will have observed, some cucumbers possess a sort of stealth technology that allows them to escape detection until they have reached near football size.  As diligently as one might rummage in the prickly leaves, a few fruits always get away, until one day when you reach in and your hand latches on to a cucumber as big around as your forearm.  Honestly, how does this happen?  It’s a phenomenon that has perplexed me over decades.

Cucumbers are easier to find, easier to pick, and more pleasant to behold when they are growing up a trellis.  We have this sort of rotty white wooden fence that I screwed a metal grid onto, and both cucumbers and beans have happily ascended it.  I have two kinds of cucumbers in my garden—Burpee Pickler and my favorite cucumber, the Suyo Long.  I used to seek out French cornichon cucumber seeds, until I realized that a cornichon is just a little cuke.  If you pick the Burpees at 2-inch size, they work just fine for those vinegary pickles, tel mignon, which must accompany a slice of terrine.  I’m not picking the babies this year, though, as I still have a good stock of cornichons in the fridge from last year.

I’m letting the picklers grow a bit more, and they’ll get fermented in a simple brine with dill, garlic, and chilies to make Russian-style (or is it Jewish?) sour dills.  Oh, how I love those pungent, fragrant cukes, slightly piquant, sour and salty.  I could eat a bowl at a time, but I help myself judiciously, to make sure they last me through the winter.  The trick of adding currant, oak, grape, or cherry leaves to the brine to ensure crispness really does work.

Now about the Suyo Long, a type of cucumber I first encountered in China, where this is the standard cuke.  How long is a Suyo Long?  Pretty darn long.  The one spanning the frame below would be a good 16 inches if straightened out, and they’ll go a few inches longer than that.  Growing them on a trellis causes them to grow straighter.  If they’re lying on the ground they tend to curl up.

The virtues of this type of Asian cucumber are many.  Let me count them:  First, although they come from the vine very prickly indeed, once the spines are washed off the skin is quite tender, and not bitter.  Then, while by no means seedless, they have fewer seeds, and less tough, than the typical cuke.  And the flesh seems less watery, with a slight fragrance of watermelon rind.  They really are a total taste of summer for me.  They’re my favorite for bread & butter pickles, sliced into a classic salad with sour cream or yogurt dressing, chopped for a cool and hot salsa.

And of course they make me nostalgic for the time I spent in China, where I would sit with my fellow teachers or my Chinese students in one of the little open-air restaurants along the narrow grubby streets just outside the university gates on warm, hazy evenings and order up mapo doufu (tofu in spicy pork sauce), hui guo rou (twice-cooked pork), and often a dish of liang ban huang gua, cucumbers in a dark, spicy dressing with plenty of garlic.  Indeed, cucumbers and garlic are one of those classic combinations found in cuisines all over the world.  There’s another Sichuan cucumber salad, suan ni huang gua, in which the dressing consists of little but very finely minced garlic.  Not for the faint of heart, or first-daters.

Printed on cheap, cheap paper, poorly bound, Selected Sichuan Recipes 1 & 2 from the Sichuan Culinary College are among the most cherished volumes in my cookbook collection.
Like the French, the Chinese often cook cucumber, pairing it in stir-fries with cubed chicken or pork.  If you haven’t tried it, cooked cucumber is a delightful surprise.  It retains some of its iconic coolness even while hot, and pairs wonderfully with the numbing and hot (ma la) flavors of Sichuan cooking.  The recipes below are copied directly from handouts for Sichuan cooking classes I taught a long time ago, almost no changes.  They worked then, they should work now.  Have a try.

Cucumber Salad (Liang Ban Huang Gua)

The Chinese don’t eat many raw vegetables, for a variety of reasons.  But this cucumber “salad” is a common summer dish in Sichuan.  Serve it right along with the other dishes in a multi-dish Chinese meal.  With the potent flavors of chili oil and pulverized garlic, it will hold its own.

2 medium cucumbers, about a pound

With tender summer cucumbers, leave the skin on.  With winter grocery store cukes, peel them entirely or just mostly, leaving some thin strips of the skin for color.  Cut them in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, and cut each half lengthwise again.  Smack these quarter strips with the side of a cleaver or heavy knife a couple of times—this opens the flesh up a bit to take in more of the sauce.  Cut the strips into 1-inch pieces. 

3 cloves garlic  

Peel the garlic, then smash each clove flat with the side of a cleaver or heavy knife.  Mince and scrape the garlic on your cutting board till it is nearly a paste.  Adding a little bit of  salt will help this process but is not necessary.

2 scallions, minced        
2 Tbl soy sauce
1 Tbl Chinese dark vinegar       
2 tsp sugar
1 Tbl chili flakes in oil    
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp ground Sichuan pepper

Mix the garlic and the rest of the sauce ingredients.  Pour the sauce over the cucumbers and mix well.  Serve.

Chicken with Cucumbers (Huang Gua Ji Ding)

Cucumbers are often cooked in Chinese cuisine.  They must be treated rather delicately, cooked just enough to take away the raw flavor, but not so much that they lose their crispness.  This simple recipe combines diced cucumber with chicken, chilies, and a copious dose of garlic. [This is also very good with pork subbed for the chicken, and a bit of sugar (1/2 tsp?) and soy sauce (2 Tbl?) added to the marinade.]

1 medium cucumber                  
1/2 tsp salt

Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds.  Cut the cucumber into 1/2-inch dice, put them in a bowl, and mix in the 1/2 tsp salt.  Let it sit for 20 minutes or so, while the salt draws off some of the moisture from the cucumber.  Then drain the cucumber, squeezing to remove as much liquid as you can.

6 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh meat, cut in 1/2-inch dice
1 Tbl rice wine or dry sherry
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cornstarch 
1 tsp sesame oil

Mix the chicken with the rice wine, salt, cornstarch, and sesame oil.  Let marinate at least 20 minutes.

1 1/2 Tbl minced garlic
4 whole dried red chilies (or more, to taste), broken in half
2 Tbl vegetable oil
1/4 tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper

Heat a wok or fry pan over high, then add the 2 Tbl oil.  When the oil is very hot add the chilies and stir-fry until they begin to darken, about 30 seconds.  Then add the garlic and stir-fry for just 10 seconds.  Add the chicken and stir-fry until the chicken is white and firm, about 1 minute.  Add the cucumbers and stir-fry for 1 minute. 

 Remove to a serving plate, sprinkle with the Sichuan pepper, and serve.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Yogurt Cheese, Incidental Smørrebrød, and the Open-Face Sandwich Conundrum

I made yogurt cheese for the first time last night.  What a revelation, and how insanely easy!  All I was really trying to do was remove a bit of whey from the yogurt so the dressing for my cucumber salad wouldn't be so watery.  I dumped some yogurt into a cheesecloth (really a scrap of worn-out dish towel I use for fine straining) and let it drip.  I took what I wanted for the salad, and the rest of it sat out overnight.  I tasted it in the morning; I was stunned.  Tangy, creamy, savory—I would not have thought something so rich and wonderful could have come from plain old yogurt.  I made fresh cheese recently with a method that involved culturing, cutting curd, cooking, and straining.  Much more involved, and in the end most of the milk went away as whey; more than that, the end product, while perfectly fine, was not nearly as interesting as the yogurt cheese.  Labneh, it’s called in parts of the Middle East; David Chang likes it, it turns up in the Momofuku cookbook. 

I think I’ve got myself a new hobby, coming up with different ways to flavor the basic cheese.  Furthermore, my days of buying chèvre may be over.  Obviously, the quality of the yogurt is paramount in determining the quality of the strained product.  I am sure that our wondrously rich Wisconsin milk from happy grass-fed cows makes all the difference (but Cedar Summit is fabulous, too).

So then, just a little while ago as I passed through the kitchen on the way to pick blackberries, I beheld that cheese still nestled in the strainer, and next to it a container of tomatoes, and beyond that the bread board.  I would need sustenance for my fruit harvesting efforts, and so this incidental smørrebrød was born.  I thought it was pretty, and that you would enjoy to see it.

Smørrebrød, a beautiful thing, and what a joy to the baker’s heart, a meal based upon bread.  But the open-face sandwich is a curious concept, is it not?  Oxymoronic perhaps, for does not the very essence of the sandwich involve the presence of enveloping components, the bottom, then the top, between which the sandwiched item or items is/are sandwiched?  The open-face sandwich might be construed as an aberration, a perversion of nature, wherein the intimate embrace of sandwiching and sandwiched is violated, the that-which-should-be-hidden is laid bare, exposed to the pitiless scrutiny of an indifferent universe.

Or is it, on the other hand, like the koan of the sound of one hand clapping, a philosophical puzzle for us to contemplate in hermetic solitude?

And is it open-face, or open-faced, and is the hyphen required?  Each variation carries subtle implications all its own.

Questions, questions.  Perhaps I will try to answer them after lunch.  And then I still have to get up to Bide-A-Wee and pick those berries.  I got a little distracted....

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw