Brown rice, anyone?

Over the past few years I have converted almost completely to whole grains in my own diet – convincing the rest of the family to do so has been only somewhat successful – they love their white rice, pasta, and bread! On some issues I’ve simply laid down the law – you will eat your sandwiches on whole wheat bread and your rice pilaf brown! – and stopped buying white. On others we eat separately: I will cook whole wheat pasta for myself when I cook white for them (I’m most sympathetic on this one, since it took me a long time to like whole wheat pasta). Our most recent compromise has been to alternate the kind of rice we cook to serve with Chinese food: one time we do a mix that includes brown rice, the next time we mix just white and sticky rice. It’s a gradual process of conversion which may never be complete!

It is indeed rare, although not unheard of, for Chinese restaurants to offer brown rice – I’m happy to see that it seems to be a growing phenomenon. And there’s more and more evidence that whole grains are better for you: apparently there are as many, if not more, phytochemicals in whole grains as in fruits and veggies – they just happen to appear in a bound form. A brief article on this appears on SparkPeople. More on the scientist researching this: Ruihai Liu Research Laboratory.

Wherever you are on your journey to eat more healthfully, this is food for thought.

“Christmas Stirfry”

My husband made this for dinner yesterday, and it was strikingly pretty (as well as tasty!), in the perfect seasonal colors.

Garlic chives, jiucai in Mandarin, are available in Asian markets and at farmers’ markets that have vendors of Asian produce. The look like a long, flattened version of our chives. When fully grown they are not hollow at the center and sometimes have buds at the tips. If you can’t find them, you can substitute the more commonly found chives (reduce the cooking time) or scallions cut into thin 2″ long strips. The flavor won’t be identical, but it will be tasty all the same.

Pressed beancurd, called doufu gan (sort of translates into “tofu jerky!”) is literally tofu that has been pressed to squeeze out excess moisture. The result is a firmer texture that some people compare to meat, although the flavor is of course different. Pressed tofu comes in a variety of flavors – the most common one for this dish is five-spice, which has a dark, slightly smoky exterior and an off-white center. You can easily substitute baked tofu, now readily available in most conventional markets, for this ingredient. Since much of the flavor in this dish comes from the beancurd, you can play around with the various flavors available – bbq might be interesting here – but you may want to reduce or eliminate the soy sauce in that case.

Leftovers? This stirfry is excellent mixed into Fried Rice.

ingredients:

  • 3 squares pressed five-spice beancurd or baked five-spice tofu (other flavors can be substituted)
  • 4 oz garlic chives (or use 2 oz chives or 4 scallions as mentioned above)
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1/4 x 1.5″ strips
  • 1 T oil
  • 1 tsp light soy sauce
  • 1/4 tsp salt, or more to taste

method:

  1. Slice the beancurd 1/8″ thick, then cut the slices into shreds approximately 1.5″ long.
  2. Wash the chives well and cut into 1.5″ lengths – you can keep the buds intact if there are any.
  3. Heat the oil in the wok just  until it shimmers.
  4. Add the tofu and stirfry to coat with the oil and heat through.
  5. Add the chives and red pepper strips and stirfry gently until the vegetable just wilts but is still bright green.
  6. Add the soy sauce, stir to combine and heat thoroughly, adjust seasoning, then slide onto the serving plate.

For consideration: planning for the holidays (and beyond)

Something to ponder before planning your holiday meals: great stuff on “Ethical Omnivores,” featuring Growing Power’s Will Allen among others.

Many people would say they can’t afford pastured meat and poultry, but if you can more frequently eat vegetarian meals based on whole, close to the source ingredients, you will certainly save enough to make the pastured proteins affordable when you do serve them. And once all the hidden costs of conventionally raised animals are calculated (commodity subsidies, damage to the environment and pain and suffering of the animals to name but a few), can we afford not to switch?

Five-Spice Sweet Potatoes

Got any leftover uncooked sweet potatoes (or yams) from Thanksgiving? Here’s a great recipe based on one from the November 2009 issue of Food &Wine. It gives a Chinese twist to traditional glazed sweet potatoes, so I’m calling it Chinese home cooking, although it should probably be served with a Chinese-inspired western menu, rather than as part of a traditional Chinese one. I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit, reducing the amount of butter and sugar, partially changing the cooking method, and eliminating a walnut toffee called for in the original.

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:

  • 2 lbs orange sweet potatoes or yams (I love the “garnet” variety), peeled (or not) and cut into 2″ chunks
  • 1/4 c packed light brown sugar
  • 1 T unsalted butter
  • 3/4 tsp five spice powder, lightly toasted
  • dash of grated nutmeg
  • pinch of sea salt

method:

  1. Steam the sweet potatoes for 15-20 m or just until tender. Remove to an oven-proof dish.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  3. While the sweet potatoes steam, combine the sugar, butter, and spices and heat until the butter melts. Simmer on low heat 5 m.
  4. Pour the mixture over the cooked sweet potatoes, toss gently to coat, taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary, then bake for about 10 m until tender and glazed.

do ahead:

You can steam the potatoes up to a day in advance – cool and then refrigerate, tightly covered, then bring to room temperature before adding the sugar mixture and baking. Or you can finish the dish, cool and then refrigerate, tightly covered. Reheat at 350F until bubbly, about 15-20 m.

variation:

This also makes a wonderful puree – reduce the amount of sugar and butter to taste, and mash or puree in a food processor until smooth.