When you buy squid or shrimp in the grocery store around here (even at the fish market), it’s usually bagged frozen stuff that the shop has just thawed that day. This is why we usually buy big bags of it ourselves, so we can thaw it out in small quantities as we want it. We never have any lack of ideas for the shrimp, but somehow the squid wasn’t getting used very quickly. I spent some time hunting out recipes for pre-cut rings and tentacles, especially Chinese, which I thought would be particularly well-suited. I found surprisingly few Chinese recipes for squid, but lots for clams, and it occurred to me that if clams in black bean sauce was such a fixture, why not squid in black bean sauce? Why not on noodles? And a dinner concept was born.
So far I’ve been making it up as I go along each time, but maybe at some point I’ll settle on a particular recipe – or maybe not. I tend to cook by the “spoonful of this, spoonful of that” method in any case. If you have squid in the house, and you can remember to thaw it in time, this is a fantastic, blazingly-fast weeknight dinner – certainly no more than half an hour from start to finish, if you prep while the noodles are cooking. And you could use considerably less chile than I do, if you don’t happen to like having your sinuses cleared by your dinner. But what I really love is the contrast of texture between the squid and the noodles, and the saltiness of the black beans. Everything else is flexible.
The way I’m doing this at the moment (subject to change as I experiment, but this is way tasty): first I cook and drain the noodles – we’re really liking udon with this, but any kind of slithery noodle would work – and toss them in a large bowl with some of the sludge from our homemade hot chile oil and a splash of soy sauce. Then I get all my condiments, squid and vegetables ready to go, as none of this takes any time at all to cook. I heat peanut oil in the wok, and toss in chopped garlic and scallions. As those sizzle, I add a spoonful of chile-garlic sauce and a spoonful of fermented black beans. Then I add the squid and start stir-frying briskly, adding a splash of rice wine. As soon as the squid turns opaque (perhaps a minute), I turn it out into the bowl of noodles. Then I put the wok back over the heat and toss in a bunch of chopped greens, like bok choi or beet greens, and stirfry with a bit of soy sauce until wilted, then scrape those into the noodles as well. Serve hot. Slurp.
We’ve been in the mood for Chinese food a lot lately, but were wanting some new ideas. Opening some Chinese cookbooks at random led me to a chicken recipe in Land of Plenty that I’d never noticed before. It’s called Tai Bai, apparently in honor of the poet Li Bai. It’s easy to put together and involves very little chopping, which is a real selling point some nights. It has no garlic or ginger – the primary flavors are chiles, both dried and pickled, plus Sichuan pepper. It’s moderately fiery, so I wouldn’t recommend this one if you don’t have much spice tolerance. We think it’s delicious.
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After a long hiatus, we just made it back to our current favorite Chinese restaurant, Peaceful in Vancouver B.C. After a mighty emotional struggle, we decided not to get noodles this time. Instead we got Jon’s favorite beef rolls (rich fried bread rolled around thin slices of beef, raw scallion and hoisin sauce, OMG theyaresogood), an order of Sichuan greens and ma po tofu. I burned my mouth and ate way too much and have no regrets whatsoever. The ma po was really good – remarkably like the version we make at home, but with pork instead of beef, loads of Sichuan pepper, and very fresh wobbly tofu – but it inexplicably arrived in a Pyrex pie pan, which made me feel like a complete hog. Not that that’s a bad thing.
We recently made hot and sour soup for the first time, and I can’t imagine why I waited this long. It was prompted by the annual advent of scallion-chive flatbreads, since the chives are shooting up in the garden and we happened to have a bag of cilantro in the fridge, and nothing goes better with these breads than soup. We just picked up a used copy of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young, and I pulled this recipe out more or less at random. It looked simple and fast, useful features when you’re also making involved flatbreads.
I followed it pretty closely, while leaving out the lily buds, adding a bit of extra pork, and using the pre-shredded black fungus that we’ve become addicted to instead of whole cloud ears. The soup is heated with white pepper and soured with cider vinegar, and the main complaints we had were the lack of salt (fixed with a dab of soy sauce after serving) and the dullness of the vinegar flavor, apparently due to adding it early in the cooking process. When we ate the leftovers I added a bit of fresh vinegar and it was much peppier. But other than that it was really good – soothing and very textural, and the breads (which I made with hot chile oil and plenty of salt) were fantastic dipped into it.
I think we’ll try a variation on the recipe soon – maybe Barbara Tropp’s version which uses rice vinegar and soy. Does anyone have a recipe for hot and sour soup they really like? I think this could become part of our regular rotation.
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This recipe is a real blast from the past for us. A standby from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (the original recipe is called Szechwan Tofu Triangles in Triple Pepper Sauce), Jon used to cook this for me when we were going out in college. We stopped making it for a long time, then suddenly felt the urge to try it again. It may not be very authentic, but it’s really pretty tasty. The “triple pepper” refers to the inclusion of bell pepper, hot red pepper, and black pepper, although in our latest version we added a fourth – Sichuan pepper. It adds that peculiar mouth-numbing quality that some of us go for in our stir-fries.
Any sort of sweet pepper will do here, but if you have a mix of colors it makes it particularly pretty.
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When we ordered our first (half) pig, we debated getting some of it cured by the butcher. In the end, partly because I am cheap frugal, we decided to get it all fresh, hams and side and all. I had been thinking we would cure some ourselves, but I’m beginning to suspect we’ll have eaten it all by the time I get serious about it. Oh, well, there’s always another pig.
But in the meantime, we have these nice big roasts of side pork, otherwise known as pork belly, the cut that is usually made into bacon. We’ve eaten it in restaurants a number of times, but this would be my first time cooking it. I decided to play it safe and make red-cooked pork belly, a classic Chinese preparation.
We’ve tried to get fresh pork belly before, at a local meat shop, but to my dismay they had already sliced it like bacon, even though it wasn’t cured. This time things worked out better, as you can see in the top picture. Isn’t that a beautiful piece of meat?
For my braising liquid, I used a combination of Molly Stevens’ recipe and our own “glazed gingery ribs” recipe. I combined chicken stock, water, brown sugar, red chile flakes, star anise, ginger, scallions and soy sauce in a Dutch oven and brought it to a simmer.
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A while back I wrote about tofu with broccoli and peanut sauce. One of our favorite easy weeknight meals, it has evolved through various permutations, and I really like where it is right now. We’ve actually eaten it twice in the last two weeks – partly because Jon is still on meds that don’t allow alcohol, so we’ve been having a lot of things that go with Oolong tea, but also because it’s really, really good.
My current approach is to sear cubes of silken tofu in peanut oil until hot and crispy on the outside, piling it onto bowls of brown rice with steamed broccoli (we do still make it with buckwheat soba occasionally, but it gets extra gooey – brown rice is easier to mix). Over this goes my new favorite peanut sauce, which I found in Deborah Madison’s book on tofu. It’s easy to mix up from pantry ingredients (as long as you keep Chinese black vinegar in your pantry), which makes it a great emergency recipe. We always have a few boxes of silken tofu on hand these days for just these occasions.
I can’t really explain why this combination of flavors is so good, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Everything gets combined in the bowl, creating a rich, salty-sour-hot amalgam of good things. Try it!
adapted from This Can’t Be Tofu! by Deborah Madison
- 1/2 cup creamy unsweetened peanut butter (I use Adams)
- 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
- 3 Tbsp soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp Chinkiang vinegar
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 1-2 Tbsp Sambal Oelek or other hot chili sauce
- hot water
Mix together the peanut butter, garlic, soy, vinegar, sugar and hot sauce until combined. Add hot water until it reaches the consistency you want. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
It’s always a bit odd to make a new recipe, taste it, then realize that you don’t know whether it turned out or not, since you have no idea of what it’s supposed to taste like. When we made dan dan noodles for the first time, it may or may not have been a success.
What I do know is that the noodles were flavorful, the sauce had an interesting sweet/spicy/salty tang, and the Sichuan pepper gave it so much ma that I couldn’t feel my mouth for half an hour afterwards. So perhaps it was a success. We decided to try it again another time.
That was our first time using Tianjin preserved vegetable, a fermented cabbage product that we had just recently found at a little Chinese market in Seattle’s International District. According to Fuchsia Dunlop, mistress of all things Sichuan, it’s not quite a perfect stand-in for traditional Sichuanese fermented vegetable, but it comes close. The flavor of it was sweet, a little funky and really, really, really salty. We keep trying to decide if we want to replace it when we use up the jar, or just use cabbage and lots of salt instead.
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Homemade chili oil is one of the those things where once you’ve made it, you wonder what on earth was stopping you making it. It’s so easy, and so good. All you need is a saucepan and a decent thermometer, and you can adjust the flavorings however you like.
We used to make flavored oils more often, but would make too much at once and have them go rancid when we couldn’t use them up in time. We’ve learned our lesson now, I think – small amounts only. It’s not like it’s hard to make more.
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Last week at Gretchen’s we helped out with a class on Chinese cooking. Presented by Huiming Hsiao, the daughter of Taiwanese restauranteurs, the food was heavy on the pork, light on the vegetables, and extremely yummy. I’m hardly going to complain about too much pork. Besides, there was also chicken and shrimp.
Most of the food was served at once, but we started the guests off with a curried chicken skewer. Huiming brought the boneless chicken thighs pre-marinated in a lively blend of star anise, Sichuan pepper and curry, and all we had to do was skewer them and stick them in the oven.
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