Monday, September 10, 2012

这 些不是中国菜 / Ceci n'est pas un repas chinois / This is not a Chinese meal

I honestly feel that the most important tool in my cook’s virtual knife kit is not any twist of technique, nor depth of knowledge gained from reading about cuisines around the world and avidly eating from Strasbourg to Roanoke, Tofino to Chengdu, nor skill attained from picking up the chef’s knife every day to slice, dice, mince, chop, julienne, chiffonade, and brunoise. No, the number one weapon in my kitchen arsenal these days is the ability to go with the flow.  ‘Twas not always so.  Back in the day I’d get a notion in my head—lobster-stuffed potstickered wontons with black bean sauce, say, or a salad of peaches and beets—and doggedly pursue the wildest hare to the bitter end, no matter if that involved blood, sweat, tears, and a disappointing dinner.  Well, often that approach yielded good results—the wontons were excellent (the peach-beet salad, less so).  But it was stressful, and if affairs in the kitchen went amiss, the evening could go completely off the rails.  Nowadays, when I let ingredients lead my cooking more than any overwrought conceit, things tend to turn out better, perhaps because I’m more willing to enjoy how things turn out.  It’s a culinary version of the old, “Wherever you go, there you are.”  Maybe I’ve embraced the zen of cooking, and maybe my standards have just slipped.  Whatever.

A case in point was last night’s dinner, which was supposed to be brunch, which might have become Chinese supper, which it was not, although it was eaten with chopsticks and rice bowls.  That might require a little bit of explanation. 

We had friends visiting at the farm and Bide-A-Wee this past weekend, and Sunday morning I started preparing some salads to have on a brunch buffet.  I was thinking of something a bit smorgasbord-ish:  there would be corn pancakes as the main event, and homemade herbed yogurt cheese, pickled beets, that sort of thing.  Maybe open a can of kippers. I found a couple of overgrown radishes in the garden which nonetheless were still firm and not too strong, and which sliced up into beautiful pink-and-white coins on the Benriner.  A couple of lovely Suyo Long cucumbers I also shaved into thin planks, and then sliced into veggie noodles, tossed those with a pretty hot chile-garlic oil, with just a splash of cider vinegar.  This could have been a Sichuan dish, except for the context.  Things were coming together nicely in my head for a delightful brunch.

But when Tim and Melinda came down the hill from Bide-A-Wee, it turned out they’d already had some yogurt and granola for breakfast, had enjoyed a walk around the Bide-A-Wee meadows, and were just about ready to head back to town.  No time or belly space for brunch.  No problem.  The salads could chill ‘til dinner.  We saw our friends on their way back home, then hopped in the car to do some shopping errands in Rice Lake.  On the way we stopped at the Crossroads Café in Cameron for Sunday dinner—Mary had the country fried steak, and I had chicken dinner (dark meat).  Both dinners came with a scoop of decent mashed potatoes, kind of soggy but still very tasty stuffing, and niblets corn (or you could have had Jell-O).  Mary’s gravy was white and specked with pepper; mine was chicken-dinner yellow.  Service was friendly and brisk.  My chicken was good, but not as good as the fall-off-the-bone version at the Sand Creek Café.  Mary’s country-fried steak was better, and she let me sample a generous portion.  After lunch we headed to Menard’s well-fed and content.  On the way to the checkout we were drawn to the looming Salted Nut Roll display, thinking that Nut Goodies would be nearby, but there were none to be found.  We settled for a Snickers (Mary) and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Almonds (me).   Why am I telling you this?

Okay.  Back home, little nap, some minor chores, a walk.  Radishes and cucumbers do not a supper make, but as lunch had been substantial, we didn’t want anything heavy.  Indeed, with our counters constantly covered in produce, and more, so much more in the gardens coming ripe, we think of vegetable centerpieces to our meals more than meat.  So some of the lovely corn we picked ourselves from a field near Sand Creek (with the farmer’s permission and supervision, of course!), which was originally going to garnish pancakes, that I simmered with onion, jalapeno, garlic, ginger, sage, lemon, and plenty of butter.  I had some eggplants from the market, and a big basket overflowing with patty pan squash from the garden.  My only thought with those was to grill them, toss them with minced shallots.  The thought evolved:  add some Hay River  pumpkin seed oil,* garlic, then a couple pinches of quatre-épices, cumin, and finally some piment d’espelette.  This turned out to be the star of the show.  A recipe worth writing down, passing on, repeating very soon.

And we served it all with rice, and ate with chopsticks, because that seemed elegant and appropriate, although this was not a Chinese meal.  But why not?  The cucumbers, as I say, could easily have passed on a Chinese table, and the radishes too; the eggplant-squash dish, with its mild heat and cumin fragrance, would have drawn compliments but raised no eyebrows as part of a meal in northwest China, along the silk road, where the food can seem Middle Eastern, Indian, or even Mexican.  And the corn was pretty much the same combination of ingredients that I stir-fry together for yumi chao lajiao—corn with chiles—and happily serve in Sichuan meals.  Only the butter—and maybe the sage—took it away from Chinese territory.  And yet, the combination of dishes, and the overall context, made this seem more French than Chinese.  Although it started out Scandinavian.  And it occurred to me in the course of the meal that it was a bit like the banchan dishes—kimchi, salads, and other little bites—that precede and accompany a Korean meal.

Scandinavian-French-Chinese-Korean-American tapas.  That’s what I’d call it.  With chopsticks.**

We drank a French vouvray from Champalou, a longtime favorite wine; always beautifully aromatic, ranging from dry to slightly sweet depending on the vintage.

Good things happen when you go with the flow.

Grilled Eggplant and Summer Squash with Pumpkin Seed Oil and Exotic Spice

Serves two as a side or part of a SFCKAT meal

2 Asian eggplants
2 small zucchini, same size as the eggplant, or a medium patty pan or yellow summer squash
Olive oil
1 ½ tablespoons pumpkin seed oil
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 small garlic clove, minced fine
1 small shallot, minced
2 small pinches quatre-épices 
2 generous pinches ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon piment d’espelette (or another aromatic, mildly hot ground chile that you like)
Good squeeze of lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

Remove the peel from the eggplants on two sides, remove stem and trim bottom, then slice the eggplants in half the long way, through the skin, so you have planks with the flesh exposed on the broad sections and strips of skin on the sides.  If that makes sense.  Slice the squash how you like to do for grilling.  Toss both eggplant and squash with a generous amount of olive oil, and salt generously as well.

Grill the vegetables until nicely brown, perhaps a bit charred, and very soft.  Chop them into ¾-inch chunks.  Mix the remaining ingredients, along with another pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and toss with the vegetables.  Garnish with a few very thin shallot slices, if you like.
* This dish turned out to be my favorite-to-date use for our Ken and Jay's wonderful Hay River pumpkin seed oil.  Though the oil's flavor took a backing role to the fragrant spices, the oil's texture gave a real depth and heft to this all-veggie dish.  I don't know why unctuous often has negative connotations; this dish, which actually used three different oils, had a savory unctuousness that was extremely appetizing.

**All of which made me think of  this excellent article by (Dear) Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl on the sense of the authentic in contemporary cuisine, "culinary imperialism", and the Twin Cities Asian restaurant boom--which is much more the real deal than the so-called Scandinavian restaurant boom, which consists of one high-end restaurant and a lunch spot in the American Swedish Institute....


dabbler said...

這些不是中國菜 or 這不是中式餐點 or 這不是頓中餐

Sorry, Brett, I just got in last night and didn't have time to respond.

"Ceci n'est pas un repas chinois" - Comme un titre d'un film français, par exemple, je pense on seulement met une majuscule au premier mot.

Trout Caviar said...

xie xie dab. I have changed it. Also agree it looks better w/O all the caps.

Majuscule, c'est magnifique! Je n'ai jamais vu ce mot!