Pickled Beets

Beets…. Not the first vegetable that comes to mind when you think about Chinese food? I’ve never seen beets (called tang luobo, “sugar turnip”) served in a Chinese restaurant or in a Chinese home, but their sweetness is a great foil to the pickling process and five spice powder, so I thought I’d try it. And I thought they were great!

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. 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:

  • 3-4 small beets, tops reserved for some other dish
  • 1 T sea salt dissolved in 2 T water
  • 1 tsp brown or raw cane sugar
  • 2-3 T rice wine vinegar
  • 1 pinch of five-spice powder

method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (or use any temperature between 300 & 400 if your oven is on for another purpose).
  2. Wash the beets well, then pat dry and cut off the root end. Wrap loosely in foil, place in a baking pan, and roast until a sharp knife enters easily to the center, approximately 1-1.5 h if the oven is at 350. Be careful not to pierce the bottom of the foil, or the beet sugar will burn onto your pan if you need to continue to bake.
  3. Let the beets cool, then slip off the skins and refrigerate until cool.
  4. Cut into thin slices, then into strips, or use a mandolin to julienne the beets.
  5. Toss the beets with the salted water and allow to rest at room temperature for 30-60 m.
  6. Rinse in cool water and drain well, then add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
  7. Adjust the seasoning – you may need to add a bit of salt – and chill until serving time.

do ahead:

You can do steps 1-2 any time up to 1 week in advance – plan to roast the beets when you have something else to bake or roast, and you’ll save yourself time and do a nice thing for Mother Earth!

The completed dish will last up to a week in the refrigerator.

Stirfried Squid with Sugar Snap Peas

Squid seems to be a fairly ocean-friendly choice as far as seafood goes (see Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch), and wonder of wonders, my 5-year-old seems to like it! I found some wild-caught squid at the farmers’ market, but you could also look for it at your favorite fish vendor, either fresh or frozen. Snap peas are making their appearance at the market as well, so here’s a recipe to take advantage of those. As with other recipes for stirfries, avoid crowding the wok – it’s better to cook in 2 batches than have the food steam rather than stirfry.

ingredients:

  • 8 oz cleaned squid
  • 2 T cooking oil
  • 1 scallion, minced
  • 3 slices ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 tsp sea salt, or to taste
  • 1 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine or dry sherry
  • 1 handful sugar snap peas, ends and strings removed
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and sliced thinly on the diagonal

method:

  1. If you are using small squid, cut them into 1/4″ rings, leaving the tentacles together as one piece. If you are using large squid, separate the tentacles and cut them into 1″ pieces. Flatten out the cone, then holding your knife at approximately a 30 degree angle to the cutting board, make shallow diagonal cuts 1/2″ apart first one way, then the other, so you have a diamond pattern all over the squid. Then cut the squid into 1.5″ squares.
  2. Heat a wok over medium high heat, then add 1 T of the oil, just until it shimmers.
  3. Explode the scallion and ginger just until fragrant.
  4. Stirfry the squid just until cooked through – it will lose its translucent quality and start to look opaque.Add the salt and cooking wine and stirfry quickly to mix. Warning:  If you overcook it, it will be like eating rubber bands! Remove to a plate.
  5. Heat the remaining 1 T of oil just until it shimmers, then stirfry the snap peas and carrot slices until crisp tender. Add the squid back, stirfry quickly to combine.
  6. Adjust the seasoning and serve.

Reducing your “Cookprint”

I have to admit that since I stopped working at the end of March, I have been seriously guilty of sneaking a LOT of reading for pleasure. Full disclosure: I have devoured the entire Twilight series AND watched the movie. It’s a bit ridiculous when you fight over the books with your child because you’re both reading them or trying to, if you could just get them away from the other person. (The days went something like this: “Don’t you have homework you should be doing? Give me that book!” “Are you planning on making dinner for us tonight, Mommy? Why don’t you give me the book!”) The books are seriously addictive in a weird, teeny-bopper way. I had to consult my teenage niece to make sure that some of my questions would finally be resolved, mainly was I going to hate Bella all the way through the series, or does she (as a friend asked) finally develop a spine? This friend’s husband, I’m afraid, hates me more with each reading recommendation I give her – it started with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which impacted his diet, and moved on through Twilight, which his wife has also become addicted to…. Of course, the series has made me go back and reread some of the classics it references (such as Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights) so there has been a redeeming feature. Anyway, Twilight  has been a totally guilty pleasure, having very little to do with food and cooking unless you take into account the Cullen coven’s claim to be “vegetarians” –  they don’t feed on humans, just on animals.

So maybe it’s time to get back to some real food reading. Luckily, Mary MacVean, of the LA Times has provided me with a handy reading list for the immediate future: in “Tackling the ethics of eating,” she gives a roundup of recent books on the topic of reducing your “cookprint”. If you struggle with questions like this:

Is it OK to buy that organic peach in January if it comes from Chile, or is the fuel used to transport it too costly to the planet? What about the lives of the animals killed for food? Or those of the people who work in slaughterhouses or pick strawberries? When words like “sustainable” are marketing tools, how can a consumer figure out what to do? And can a family on a budget afford to eat sustainably?

…there are several authors out there ready to help you answer them, and MacVean has compiled a tidy list with which you can start. I particularly like the quote she pulls from Mark Bittman’s Food Matters on the question of cutting down on meat consumption:

Eating a typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home.

So I’m off to pick up some of the recommended books, probably starting with Kate Heyhoe’s Cooking Green. I hear the second Twilight movie is coming out only in November, so that should give me plenty of time….

Spinach with Fermented Beancurd

This recipe may fall under the “I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it” category – it calls for an odd ingredient called fermented beancurd (furu), which comes in spicy and bland varieties. Before you read on and say, “Ewww,” just remember how bleu cheese is made. Fuchsia Dunlop writes that it is

…an essential relish with a pungent, cheesy flavor and a creamy texture. It is made by covering firm bean curd in dry rice straw and leaving it to mold for a couple of weeks. The molded curd is cut into cubes, mixed with strong liquor, salt, star anise, and chili flakes, and packed into pickling jars for at least a month to mature.

Gloria Bley Miller simply calls it “Chinese white cheese.” (The chili version is reddish.) If you have an Asian market nearby, you will be able to find it – if not, you’re probably out of luck unless you want to try your hand at making it and happen to have dry rice straw on hand. Besides cooking with it, we also use it as a condiment for steamed buns (mantou) – the kids just call it “salty tofu” – and Dunlop claims it’s tasty spread on toast. Store the fermented tofu in the refrigerator, making sure that it is completely covered with its liquid – if there is not enough liquid, add enough oil or sesame oil to cover.

ingredients:

  • 1 lb spinach or water spinach
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1-2 cubes of fermented beancurd
  • 2 T water
  • 1 pinch sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 T oil

method:

  1. Soak the spinach in cool water, then remove, allowing the grit to remain in the bowl or sink. Repeat this until no grit remains. If you are using water spinach, remove the stems and reserve for another dish. Drain the leaves, allowing some water to cling to them.
  2. In a small bowl, mash the beancurd into a thin paste with the water, sugar, and salt.
  3. Heat a wok over medium-high heat, then add the oil, just until it shimmers. Explode the garlic just until fragrant.
  4. Add the spinach and stirfry only until wilted.
  5. Add the beancurd paste and stirfry quickly until it is well mixed in and coats all the vegetable.
  6. Adjust the seasoning and serve.

Reading Recommendation: Fast Food Nation

First published in 2001, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal is not a new book, but I am finally getting around to reading it because it seems to come up frequently in the bibliographies of food writers active in the locavore movement.

fastfoodnation

Much of the book takes me back to the required high school reading of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – I came close to having a panic attack after reading the sections that deal with meat processing. But there is much more to digest (ha ha) in this journalistic exploration of how fast food has changed not only the American diet, but also our landscape, our ways of doing business, and our treatment of nature and each other.

I’ve been convinced for a few years now that buying locally grown, seasonal produce and humanely treated, sustainably raised animal products are the way to go for the health benefits to the body and for the health of our soil and our souls, but for anyone waiting to be convinced, Fast Food Nation is a great place to start the process. Schlosser writes in an easily understandable style and mixes statistics fluidly with more personal narratives of the people he encounters on his journey to the origins and impact of “the All-American Meal.”

Food shopping, anyone?

Although the mere thought of shopping for clothes or gifts or just about anything is enough to make me break out in hives, I love food shopping! (Okay, I also love browsing cookware stores and bookstores.)

News reports indicate that Americans are indeed trying to eat out less and eat in more – is it helping us pinch pennies and improve our diets, though? Is cooking and eating at home really working?

There are numerous ways we can “shop healthy” – my favorite tips for eating well are found in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and I summarize the ones that pertain specifically to shopping here (my comments are in parentheses):

  • Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Goodbye, Twinkies!)
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than 5 in number, or contain high fructose corn syrup.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims.
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket (where all the whole, close to the source foods are) and stay out of the middle (where all the highly processed foods are).
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible (i.e. get to the farmers’ market and “shake the hand that feeds you” – you’re not likely to find highly processed, additive-laden food there!)
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does (that is, don’t grocery shop at the local gas station-cum-convenience store – there’s probably more HFCS and transfats per square inch in there than anywhere else in America.)

Of course, there are the old standby tips as well:

  • Don’t shop when hungry.
  • Make a list and stick to it – if you see something you want but it’s not on the list, add it to next week’s list – chances are you won’t want it so much then (or if you’re like me and think you’ll write it down when you get home – forget  it – it’s forgotten!)

And perhaps a new suggestion, from Ne w York Times op-ed contributor Kate Stein: Shop Faster.

For those who firmly believe in the “5 ingredients or less” rule and still shop at conventional grocery stores – take heart – apparently some major manufacturers have read Pollan, too – Haagen Dasz and Frito-Lay are among those coming out with “5 ingredients or less” lines. (See SparkPeople’s “Healthy Lifestyle Blog” for more details.) I’m not likely to fall for that – it’s really a marketing gimmick to keep us buying junk food or get us to buy it in the first place – but I’m happy to see that they’re taking note. And I have to wonder whether these foods will actually cost more than their additive-packed counterparts – what’s that all about? Fewer ingredients should cost less…in the ideal world I wish we lived in!

 

Marinated Mushrooms

This is a quick do-ahead recipe that makes a great cold side dish.

ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb fresh white mushrooms, stems trimmed and caps gently wiped clean with a dry kitchen towel or soft mushroom brush
  • 2 T light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine or dry sherry
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/8 tsp chopped salted chilies, or to taste (optional)
  • 1 T cilantro, chopped

method:

  1. Place the mushrooms in a sieve. Bring 3 c of water to a boil, then pour it over the mushrooms, drain them well, then pat dry.
  2. Combine soy sauce, cooking wine, salt, and sesame oil, and chilies (if you’r adding) and toss gently with the mushrooms.
  3. Refrigerate for up to an hour, mixing gently once or twice.
  4. Just before serving, gently mix in the chopped cilantro.