Pork and salted bok choy with cold noodles

Today is Saturday, the last day before we get the next giant box of vegetables.

We’ve been pretty clever with this week’s haul. We made the Tuscan kale with gnocchi, walnuts and crispy fried salami. Roasted the beets. Cubed and oven roasted the potatoes, which we added to potato-zucchini-leek soup. Beet greens and Swiss chard got baked with beef shanks and quinoa. These were all very nice. We also made zucchini into a hell of a lot of zucchini bread, which for some reason we thought would try with gluten-free flour. It… was not a success… (the squirrels loved it)

Yes, it’s all been lovely, but it’s Saturday, and what the hell are we going to do with all of this bok choy?

We looked everywhere – and every recipe was some variation on “stir fry,” which unless you are in a proper Chinese kitchen, just does not work.  Also, bok choy is mostly water, which means that no matter how you fry it, it’s gonna be soupy and gross.

Today we had a revelation. Don’t fry the water out – salt it. We did this last week when we made gyōza – chop the bok choy super fine, toss in salt and let it drain a few hours in a colander. By the way, here’s our gyōza…

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My plan was to make something akin to xue cai, which is salted mustard greens. I chopped the two giant heads of bok choy into roughly one inch pieces, and dunked them in salted water for about two hours. For that much bok choy, I used about 1/4 cup of salt, but you should add salt to taste, aiming for the level of a too-salty soup stock. After about one hour, I added about 1/2 pound of sliced pork, which is always good to brine before cooking, and let the two get to know each other for an hour or so.

We decided to have this with thin noodles called sōmen, and wanted then cold, so cooked the noodles and let them sit in cold water while we finished the dish.

Preparation was easy. Take out the meat and drain the bok choy. Give the vegetables a rinse if they are too salty. Toss in a little corn starch and set aside. Dry the pork and lightly fry it with plenty of oil and a little grated ginger and white pepper. Once the meat is cooked, add the chopped bok choy and cook on medium heat for another three minutes or so, just until everything is blended and any remaining water has come out of the vegetables. Just before serving, add sesame oil and sprinkle on sesame seeds, and place in top of cool sōmen in a bowl.

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You won’t need to add salt, or any other flavoring, and the surprise was how nicely the marinating added the very slightly spicy taste of the bok choy to the meat. You could also add other ingredients, such as edamame, to the dish, but don’t go overboard. The attraction here is the simplicity of flavors.

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Aunt Clem’s stuffed cabbage

This morning was the Ithaca 5 and 10 run, meaning that you choose either 5 or 10k.

Misa and I both ran 10, but they gave me the number bib for the 5k, which means that somewhere around the 45 minute mark, the roadside cheering went from “you’re doing great!” to let’s go already!

But it was all good fun. One guy who wanted to drive across the race route, pulled up to the intersection, stopped his car and yelled dramatically to the race marshals “I SHALL PASS!” To which I yelled back – well, obviously…

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Which is of course exactly what he had been waiting for. Imagine how disappointed you would be if you gave a crowd of people the perfect setup and nobody took you up on it. Actually, he even kind of looked like that picture of Gandalf, which seems pretty meta. Is that meta? I think it’s meta. Also, what’s meta?

So anyhoo, after the race, we went to the Ithaca Farmers’ Market to get the box of surprise organic vegetables. A culinary Christmas, if you will. Among much else, we got a big cabbage and two giant zucchini, which could only mean one thing.

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Oh boy!

That’s right, an alarm went off in my Palestinian soul, and just like that – it was mezze time.

Forgive me, all of my mother’s sisters, who would be horrified to know that I have dared to change the ancient (and I mean really) family recipe for these most fundamental of dishes. Actually scratch that – they’d be proud.

You know? What the hell, let’s just say this was my favorite aunt’s recipe. It isn’t hers, but it’s one I think she would have loved.

Aunt Clem’s stuffed cabbage
Remove the leaves from a head of cabbage and either dip in boiling water or microwave to soften. Using a sharp knife, cut out the center rib to make the leaves easier to roll. Set aside.

Combine 1 pound ground beef with 3/4 cup long grain white rice and 3/4 red (shelled) lentils. They have to be shelled because you want them to disappear when they cook. Add 1 1/2 tsp each: garlic powder, dill, allspice, cinnamon, paprika and cumin. Salt to taste and mix by hand.

Roll the mixture into a cabbage leaf – the technique is hard to describe, but basically put the leaf rib side down, roll away from you stem side first, tucking the sides in as you go. Place the rolls seam side down in a baking dish, and cover with water, lemon juice, olive oil and salt.

Cover with foil and bake at 350 for at least an hour. (It wont hurt to leave them in for longer) They are done when the rice inside is cooked. Let them cool a bit before serving, you could even serve at room temperature (but not cold, as the rice gets starchy).

For me, the secret is the lentils, which disappear into the meat, but leave a rich taste that adds something special to this well known dish.

Braised pork soba in organic Ithaca

Oh my, it’s been a while. I’m not exactly on the other side of the world, but it feels like a pretty good approximation.

Since leaving Shenzhen, I returned to the US and spent one week in Montana, another in Indiana and am now in Ithaca NY visiting Misa.

It’s nice to be back in the US, but needless to say this much travel is pretty disorienting. One of the big shocks is how hard it is to get around. Despite having grown up in “not-a-damn-thing-for-miles-around” Indiana, I still never seem to get used to/sufficiently plan for this. Yesterday I left the house to go pick up Misa from campus, and accidentally locked myself out – with neither car nor house keys, nor of course my phone, which sat and mocked me from the window ledge.

It was at that point that I realized that I had no options. The Cornell campus is at least 7-8k away, and I had told Misa that I was “on my way.” Even calling a taxi meant a 15 minute walk to a pay phone (assuming that those even exist anymore), and then we would have to take a bus back — a good hour-long journey, just to end up right back where we started, and hungry to boot.

Luckily – and I mean really – a very nice stranger extricated me from this dilemma by giving me a ride to campus and giving both of us a ride back. Now that’s beyond nice, but just shows how lonely life can be without a car.

In any case, we got our dinner, which in true Ithaca fashion, consisted mostly organic kale. Actually, Misa has a subscription from one of the community gardens for a weekly box of organic produce. You don’t know what you will get, but you know it will be good. Last week she got celery, cabbage, onions and purple potatoes – the celery was so fresh that it was sweet. I honestly did not know that was possible. I diced it very fine and mixed it with ground pork and tofu to make meatballs, which we ate with toothpicks, in order to be fancy.

Today after a morning run, I made this dish to finish off the carrots and onions:

Braised pork soba

– Boil one package of soba noodles, leaving them slightly undercooked. Rinse under cold water, toss with a bit of oil and leave to drain.
– Slice one pound of pork loin into very thin strips, and then cut again in half. Toss in oil, salt and corn starch, and set aside.
– Cut two large onions into thin strips, and coarsely grate two carrots, finely grate about two tablespoons of ginger

Lightly fry (without browning) everything except the noodles. Stir in 3 tbs of sake, 2 tbs of soy sauce, about 1/2 tsp of dashi powder and 1 1/2 cups of water, cover and simmer until the onions are soft and the flavors have blended. Remove from heat, mix in 2 tsp of sesame oil and the cold noodles, cover and let sit for five minutes. Serve with sesame and/or chopped green onions.

This was a simple dish that really showed off the taste of Ithaca’s incredible local produce. The richness of the pork and onions blended beautifully with the earthy soba.

 

Animal stories: The drooling horse…

If you grew up in the Chicago area, you will no doubt appreciate a very particular kind of humor.

Right now I am back in Montana visiting my lovely sister Jen, and we were trying to put our finger on exactly what defines Chicago humor.  You definitely know it when you see it — Son of Svengoolie, and a well-deserved honorable mention for Wayne’s World. I’d put early David Letterman in there as well, even though he’s from Indiana.

But the real classic was WLS – that’s the radio station that said Wayne and Garth would have listened to – and that was home to Uncle Lar’ and “snot-nosed” Little Tommy’s morning feature ANIMAL STORIES.

I know its not the high falootin’ academic fare you’re used to on this blog, but for the sake of your very soul, have a listen to this.  Behold the glory that is the drooling horse

Dim Sum — with special guest star!

For those who don’t know, the University Services Center at CUHK is an amazing, globally unique collection of materials on 20th century China, much of which dates from a time that Hong Kong served as a sort of listening station for the mainland.

So it’s a sort of Mecca for China scholars, and a pretty common occurrence to see colleagues whether you wanted to or not. In this case, I really wanted to, because that colleague was Tia Thornton, who I first met many years ago at a workshop in Canberra, and who happens to be a truly lovely person, and somewhat more incidentally, also a very smart one.

Here’s us enjoying a nice evening of dim sum in Taipo market, which those of you who really read the hell out of this blog (anyone?), may remember as my old hangout during my semester at CUHK.

North beef-south beef – carnivorizing about in Shenzhen

When I was first learning Chinese in Taiwan, I remember being told that one of the teachers (who I didn’t know) had become gravely ill because of “wind.” This of course put my imagination on edge – was it pollution? extreme flatulence? They couldn’t explain, and I couldn’t ask.

I discovered the answer some years later, when I went to teach English at a school of Chinese medicine in Shandong. “Wind” in fact has many specific meanings in Chinese medicine, as do other ideas like “lethargy” or “heat.”

People often talk about “rising heat” (上火), which is not so much an affliction as a condition, specifically one of imbalance, often (but not always) caused by eating too many “hot” foods. These would include meat, especially sheep, but also some fruits like lychees. Rising heat will give you pimples, sore throat and shortness of breath, and the way to get rid of it is dissipate the heat. Some foods like ginger are very good for this, which is why ginger tea is so good for an oncoming cold.

My reason for bringing all this up is that like all food, Chinese people think about meat in a specific nutritional context. Beef (we knew we would get there eventually!) is a warming food. That’s why it is good for the elderly or ill. It’s also why it is often paired with ginger, not just for the taste, but to balance out the excess.

I knew that Cantonese food included a lot beef, but I have been surprised at how common, and how good the beef is in Shenzhen. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised, since this whole area has a long history of trading beef cows.

The taste is clearly different than the beef I had in Hulunbuir, though I can’t really explain how, especially since it is cooked so differently. Yesterday I had hot pot, which is of course the most common way to eat beef or lamb, but what was interesting was the way the meat itself was prepared. In most places, you get meat that’s been frozen and thinly sliced, which produces a kind of melting effect. Here, it’s all fresh meat that is hanging up in the front entrance, you point to the piece you like and they prepare it for you. It’s still very thin, and very soft, but has a much meatier quality.

Today I went looking for lunch, and saw this giant boiling bowl of beef bones, and inside saw a big crowd all eating rice noodle soup.

I wasn’t passing that up, and as soon as I walked in, they asked “20, 25 or 30?” Having no idea, I said 30, which worked out well, because 30 (yes, they did mean price) meant that I got soup with three items: sliced raw beef, braised intestines and beef balls. You often see this combination in pho restaurants, but the taste was different, among much else, the soup clearly had cinnamon and ginger.

And you know what it did not have? MSG! Boy did that made for a much nicer afternoon.