Hot & Sour Soup

It’s HOT in SoCal in September, but my thoughts are already turning toward soup and the (slightly) cooler weather of October (tomorrow!), so here’s a perennial favorite that can be tweaked many ways. It is traditionally a pork-based soup, but this is a vegetarian or vegan version, depending on the stock you use.

Five spice powder’s claim to fame is that it includes all 5 flavors found in Chinese cooking: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty. You can make your own by combining equal parts whole Sichuan (or other) peppercorn, cinnamon sticks, cloves, fennel seed, and star anise. The only one in the list that may be hard to find is Sichuan peppercorn – check your Asian market if you have one, or the Asian section of the international aisle in a conventional store. After toasting the spices lightly, grind in a mortar or with a coffee or spice grinder. If you’re in a hurry or don’t want to mess with that, five-spice is also available pre-mixed in Asian markets and in some conventional groceries – try the Asian section first, then the baking/spice aisle.

ingredients:

  • 1 qt water, stock or broth (use low-sodium if you’re going with canned/boxed)
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2-3 T rice wine or cider vinegar, to taste
  • pinch of freshly ground Sichuan or white peppercorn

thickener:

  • 1 T cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 T light soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp five-spice powder
  • 1 c cold water or stock

garnish:

  • 1/8 tsp sesame oil and/or hot chili oil
  • 1 scallion, cut thinly on the diagonal

method:

  1. Bring the liquid to a boil.
  2. In the meantime, combine the thickener ingredients in a small bowl.
  3. Stir the thickener into the liquid, return to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring fairly constantly, 1-2 m to cook out the starchy flavor.
  4. With the soup at a gentle simmer, add the eggs in a thin stream, stirring constantly.
  5. Add the vinegar and peppercorn, stir to combine.
  6. Adjust seasoning, garnish with sesame oil and scallions and serve.

variations:

There are numerous ingredients you can add to make this a heartier soup. Add the ingredients to the liquid after step 2, and cook for 1 m.

I like to stick with fresh, whole ingredients that are available locally:

  • pork slices or shreds marinated with a bit of soy sauce and cornstarch
  • cubed tofu
  • sliced shiitakes
  • fresh bean sprouts (These don’t need to be cooked – just add at the end if you like them crunchy.)

For a true Chinese flair, you can explore the Asian market and add the following ingredients:

  • rehydrated wood ear
  • soaked lily flowers
  • bamboo shoot slices or shreds
  • water chestnut slices

nutritional data:

For these calculations, I have used water in place of broth and just looked at the basic recipe (no added ingredients). You’ll see that for a fairly simple soup, it’s on the high end for both sodium and cholesterol – I have already reduced the salt and soy sauce amounts drastically, but you could try to tinker with that further, depending on whether you are watching your sodium intake or not. If you add some healthy vegetables, you could reduce the amount of egg you use and thereby lower the cholesterol count, but if you are making the original recipe, you’ll need the eggs to provide a bit of body to the soup. The recipe serves 4 generously as part of a larger meal, figures given per serving.

  • Total calories 61, calories from fat 24
  • Total fat 3 g, saturated fat 1 g
  • Cholesterol 106 mg
  • Sodium 581 mg
  • Total carbs 3 g, dietary fiber 0 g, sugars 1 g
  • Protein 4 g
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Vegetable-Stuffed Steamed Buns

We often buy frozen steamed buns at our local Asian market, but a special treat is to have the homemade version. The vegetable-filled version, cai bao,  makes a great savory breakfast.

equipment:

  • 24 squares of wax or parchment paper, 2×2″
  • steamer: for this recipe, if you have been rigging up a steamer as I discussed in the Steamers post, you will need to add some sort of rack to the pot over the plate – if you steam the buns on a plate, the bottoms will get too soggy.

ingredients:

filling:

  • 10 oz fresh or frozen chopped spinach
  • 1 c cooked noodles, chopped into roughly 1/2″ lengths (preferably rice noodles or bean thread, but even spaghetti will do)
  • 3 scallions, minced, or 1/2 leek, minced
  • 1/4 c garlic chives, chopped or regular chives, chopped (optional)
  • 1 T light soy sauce
  • 1 T sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp salt, to taste

method:

  1. If you’re using fresh spinach, blanch and shock it, then squeeze out all the liquid you can. If you’re using frozen spinach, thaw it and squeeze it well.
  2. Combine all the filling ingredients, seasoning to taste with salt – you may not need to add any.
  3. Divide the dough in 1/2, keeping one half in a bowl under a damp cloth.
  4. Roll or pat the first 1/2 into a rough circle, being sure to press out any air bubbles as you go. If your dough is the right texture, you shouldn’t need to add extra flour, but it’s okay if you need to flour the counter a bit.
  5. Poke your thumbs through the middle to make a doughnut shape, then cut that on one side to achieve a cylinder.
  6. Roll the cylinder between your hands and the counter until it is approximately 1 foot long.
  7. With a bench scraper or very sharp knife, cut the cylinder into 12 sections.
  8. Roll the dough pieces one at a time into a ball, then flatten each into a small circle.
  9. Place 1 T of filling in the center of a circle, then keeping your thumb roughly over the middle of the filling, start bringing the edge of the circle up to the thumb, crimping it into little pleats as you turn the circle slightly in your opposite hand. You should end up with a tiny hole at the top of a round bun – pinch this tightly closed.
  10. Place each roll on a square of paper and transfer to the steamer rack.
  11. Repeat steps 2-9 with the second 1/2 of the dough, then stack and cover the steamer racks.
  12. Allow the buns to rise 20 m.
  13. Steam for 8-10 m. Be careful when removing the steamer cover to catch the condensation on the lid with a towel – don’t let it pour onto the buns.

do ahead:

Unless you get up insanely early (like I do – well, usually!), you won’t want to be making these for breakfast the day you plan to consume them. The buns can be steamed and either refrigerated or frozen for another day – just pop them back in the steamer to heat through – from frozen it will take about 10 minutes. I don’t recommend microwaving them, although some people swear by wrapping an individual bun in a damp cloth or paper towel and microwaving it.

nutritional data:

Yikes – to be added later – outta time this morning if I want to get my laps in before work!

Chicken with Cashews

This is a home version of an extremely popular restaurant dish. I recommend you find a purveyor of free-range, organic chicken: you will be amazed by the difference in flavor (you will find that you can actually detect the lack of antibiotics and other chemicals normally present in conventionally farmed chicken!) AND you will be supporting a more sustainable style of farming. To find a vendor near you, check out your local farmers’ market or visit Local Harvest.

ingredients:

  • 12 oz chicken breast meat, cut into 1/2″ dice
  • 2 T oil
  • 1 green or red or ??? bell pepper, cut into 1/2″ dice
  • 6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems reserved for making broth, caps cut into 1/2″ dice
  • 2 slices fresh ginger root
  • 1 scallion, thinly cut on the diagonal
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 c roasted unsalted cashew halves

marinade:

  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 T water

sauce:

method:

  1. Combine the chicken with the marinade ingredients and set aside for 30 m.
  2. Combine the sauce ingredients and set aside.
  3. Heat 1 T oil in the wok over high heat until it shimmers.
  4. Drain as much marinade as possible off the chicken, then add the chicken to the wok, stirfrying on high heat until the pieces separate and begin to turn white, then remove to a plate.
  5. Add 1 T oil, explode the ginger and scallion until fragrant, then add the bell pepper, mushrooms, and salt, stirfrying for approximately 1 m.
  6. Give the sauce a stir and add to the wok along with the chicken.
  7. Stirfry continuously until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce’s starchy taste is cooked out.
  8. Adjust seasoning, top with cashews, and serve.

nutritional data:

This dish may appear to be surprisingly high in calories and fat, but much of the fat content (and hence the calories) come from the cashews, which are high in “good fat.” I have reduced the fat content of the original recipe by using roasted cashews (most restaurants will fry them) and stirfrying the chicken rather than cooking by a method called “passing through the oil,” which is basically deep frying without a breading. Just imagine the fat content, then, of what appears to be a fairly healthy dish on a restaurant menu…. To reduce the fat content more, you could actually steam the marinated chicken briefly and omit the step of stirfrying it – for me, it’s usually a question of how many pots and pans I want to wash, so I opt for the wok and just serve vegetable-centric dishes alongside to balance things out. If the sodium content alarms you, you could omit the salt added to the vegetable stirfrying and/or reduce/omit the amount of soy sauce in the sauce, but of course you would lose a lot of flavor. This recipe is very high in protein since both the chicken and the cashews contain goodly amounts.

This recipe serves 4 as part of a larger meal, and nutrition data is given per serving.

  • Total calories 304, calories from fat 139
  • Total fat 16 g, saturated fat 3 g
  • Cholesterol 49 mg
  • Sodium 639 mg
  • Total carbs 16 g, dietary fiber 2 g, sugars 4 g
  • Protein 24 g

Early Fall Supper

Here’s a quick, homey supper, mostly featuring the items I’ve been finding at my local farmers’ market. I’m giving a vegetarian option (indicated by *) as well as one with meat.

recipes:

strategy:

  1. Soak the rice well in advance.
  2. Marinate the pork.
  3. Soak the broccoli and *mustard greens in several changes of water.
  4. Start the rice.
  5. Start the squash simmering.
  6. Prepare the remaining vegetables: wash and cut beans and cabbage, peel and cut broccoli.
  7. *Cube the beancurd.
  8. Combine all the sauce mixtures and set aside, finish the remaining preparations.
  9. Stirfry the cabbage – this dish can be served at room temperature, so it’s a good place to start.
  10. Check on the squash – the sauce will keep this one hot for a while if it’s already done.
  11. Braise the beans.
  12. Stirfry the pork & broccoli or *greens with beancurd.

Mediterranean Diet, RIP?

There was a disturbing article in the New York Times yesterday concerning the demise of the Mediterranean diet in its native Greece, as well as in southwestern Europe in general. Elisabeth Rosenthal reports that obesity and high cholesterol are on the rise among the children and youth of the area, resulting in a situation similar to that of America’s – the younger generation will be the first to have a lower life expectancy than that of their parents.

And it’s precisely on the parents that my attention, as well as many of the commenters’, was focused. Apparently, parents on Crete have started to cave on the question of what’s for dinner:

Outside one of Kasteli’s several ice cream parlors, Argyro Koromylla said, “You don’t want your child complaining or feeling left out, so you give him what he wants.”

Sadly, this article could well be written about any region of the world which in addition to increasing wealth has adopted America’s love of fast food, inactivity, and indulgence of children – if you read the comments, they say as much about places from Katmandhu to Spain.

None of this is terribly new news, but it is an urgent reminder that traditional diets, whether Mediterranean or Asian, are something that should not only be treasured by their originators but also explored and celebrated by the “outsiders”: learn to cook something “exotic” today – it may save your life down the road!

Pork Shreds with Chinese Broccoli

This is another very quick stirfry with a beautiful presentation (you’ll look really professional if you cook it for friends – little do they know it’s super-easy!)

For a discussion of Chinese broccoli, see Stirfried Broccoli (Chinese or Not). For this recipe you could substitute our traditional western broccoli – I would, however, just blanch it until bright green and slightly tender, then skip the stirfrying step for the greens.

For pork, you can use just about any cut (the shreds are small and marinated, so they will be tender), but I strongly urge you to find pastured pork – better flavor, better for your body, and better for the environment. You can find a supplier at Local Harvest.

I usually try to stick to fresh, whole, easy-to-find ingredients and avoid processed foods as much as possible, but this recipe is so delicious, we make the occasional exception (all things in moderation, and all that!) Tian mian jiang, translated “sweet flour sauce/paste”, is sort of a mystery ingredient – I have only ever seen it used in a very few recipes, all in cookbooks in Chinese. Googling it isn’t much help – you can find some threads about it online, but none are particularly helpful. In any case, the jar in front of me claims to contain “bean, flour, salt,” but makes me wonder about where the sweetness came from. It is dark reddish-brown and salty-sweet. You can find it in Asian markets in the condiment section and in the Asian section of some conventional stores that serve large Chinese populations. Can’t find it? An acceptable substitute would be hoisin sauce; another would be the darkest miso you can find – this will, however, give you less of the sweet taste (you can add a bit of brown sugar) and less of the dark color, which will take away from the appearance if not the taste of the dish.

ingredients:

  • 8 oz pork, cut across the grain into 1/8×1/8×1.5″ shreds
  • 8 oz Chinese broccoli
  • 2 T oil
  • 1 scallion, minced
  • 2 slices fresh ginger root, minced

marinade:

  • 1 T Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 1 T ginger juice (grate and squeeze 1 large knob of fresh ginger root)
  • 2 tsp tapioca flour or cornstarch

sauce:

  • 1 T light soy sauce
  • 1 T tian mian jiang or hoisin sauce

method:

  1. Combine the meat shreds with the marinade ingredients and allow to rest at least 15 m.
  2. Soak the Chinese broccoli in cool water, rinse and repeat until no grit remains in the sink or bowl.
  3. Pull off the leaves and set aside, then peel the stems and roll-cut into 1.5″ sections, set aside separately from the leaves.
  4. Combine the sauce ingredients and set aside.
  5. Heat 1 T oil in the wok over high heat until it shimmers, add the broccoli stems and stirfry until tender. You can actually stir, then cover, stir, then cover – this will speed up the cooking process – just be careful not to overcook, or the color will be a drab olive instead of a bright green.
  6. Add the leaves and stirfry just until they are bright green and wilted. If your wok is small, don’t crowd it – cook the greens in 2 batches. Arrange the greens on the bottom of the serving plate.
  7. Heat 1 T oil in the wok over high heat until it shimmers, then explode the scallion and ginger until fragrant.
  8. Add the pork, and stirfry just until the outside loses its pink color, approximately 1 m.
  9. Add the sauce ingredients, and keep stirfrying until the meat is just cooked through and covered with sauce, approximately 1 m.
  10. Adjust the seasoning, add the meat to the top of the greens, and serve.

nutritional data:

This recipe serves 4 as part of a larger meal, and nutrition information is per serving. The fat and sodium content are naturally higher in this type of dish due to the use of meat and also because of the tian mian jiang, which is similar to soy sauce in its sodium content. Again, my best advice – serve with lots of brown rice and make sure the other dishes are vegetable-centric and low in sodium. To cut down on fat, you could certainly blanch the Chinese broccoli instead of stirfrying it. This is a special treat at our house, not a dish we eat weekly.

  • Total calories 171, calories from fat 94
  • Total fat 11 g, saturated fat 2 g
  • Cholesterol 33 mg
  • Sodium 419 mg
  • Total carbs 5 g, dietary fiber 1 g, sugars 1 g
  • Protein 13 g

Stirfried Beef with Bell Peppers

Super-easy basic stirfry recipe – the trick is to keep the food moving and not overcook it, or you will have tough meat, limp veggies, and too much juice! If you have a small wok, cook the food in 2 batches, or it will crowd the pan and steam instead of stirfry.

Once again, I strongly encourage you to cook with grassfed beef – the flavor is unbeatable, and the impact on the environment much smaller. For more information on this, see “The cost of steak.” Grassfed beef (as well as pastured pork, bison, and chicken) is ever-more present at farmers’ markets and even at some conventional stores – try to buy the meat labeled “grassfed, grass-finished,” which means the animal never saw the inside of a CAFO/feedlot. This recipe can be made with just about any cut – the shreds are small, so even a large-grain piece such as flank steak will come out tender. For an extra-special treat, try it with tenderloin!

ingredients:

  • 12 oz beef (see note in intro)
  • 1 red bell pepper (or use a combination of red/yellow/green/orange – whatever’s in the market!)
  • 1 T oil
  • 1/2 tsp salt

marinade:

method:

  1. Cut the beef across the grain into thin strips, approximately 1/8×1/8×2″ long.
  2. Combine the beef with the marinade ingredients in a bowl and allow to rest for 15-30 m. Drain off the marinade before cooking.
  3. Wash and dry the pepper(s), then Cut off the tops and bottoms, removing the seeds. Cut the peppers into thin strips, again approximately 1/8×1/8×2″ long, set aside.
  4. Heat the oil in the wok over high heat until it shimmers.
  5. Add the beef and stirfry quickly just until the outside is brown – the inside should still be pink, approximately 1 m.
  6. Add the peppers and stirfry 15-30 seconds more.
  7. Add the salt, stir to combine thoroughly, then remove from the heat.
  8. Adjust the seasoning, and serve.

nutritional data:

I have used conventional flank steak for my calculations – still need to get hold of the nutritional content of grassfed beef! As with other dishes where marinade is used, it is hard to estimate how much marinade is drained off before cooking – the calculations here are based on the assumption that it’s approximately 1/2. The relatively high level of fat calories, cholesterol, and sodium can be balanced out by serving the dish with plenty of brown rice and some vegetable-centric dishes. The recipe serves 4 as part of a larger meal, and the figures given are per serving.

  • Total calories 178, calories from fat 86
  • Total fat 10 g, saturated fat 3 g
  • Cholesterol 29 mg
  • Sodium 467 mg
  • Total carbs 2 g, dietary fiber 1 g, sugars 1 g
  • Protein 18 g