Friday, August 8, 2008

A Mixed Bag

In my book (unpublished and likely to remain so), “A Year of Food,” I chronicled my intake, philosophized, cajoled, and was generally quite witty (well, I’m writing this review!). In this blog I include only the new and inventive things I manage to do. Ergo, I will mention lunch today.

My homemade corned beef has been ready for a couple of days. We have a loaf of Udi’s rosemary sourdough bread and some Swiss cheese. It’s time for Reuben sandwiches.

Reuben’s usually have sauerkraut in them. We don’t have any. Instead, I concocted a slaw with stuff I scavenged from the fridge. This is an example of my philosophy about cooking. Find what you like, find what you have; put them together. Eat.

Stevie’s slaw

The remains of a head of napa cabbage, sliced thin
2 stalks Chinese celery, finely chopped
½ yellow jalapeno-style chili, seeded and finely chopped
white wine vinegar
olive oil
1 tbsp mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste

Toss everything together an hour or two before time to eat. This will allow the cabbage and celery to wilt a bit. As often happens, I can’t give you precise measurements for the dressing. It depends entirely on how much cabbage and celery you are using. Start with small amounts and add more as your taste dictates.

Reuben sandwiches

4 slices bread
corned beef
2 slices Swiss cheese
2-3 tbsp slaw
schmear of mustard
1 tbsp butter

Slather a bit of your favorite mustard on one or both pieces of bread. Assemble the sandwiches in this order: ½ slice cheese, as much corned beef as you want, slaw, ½ slice cheese.

Heat a griddle or large sauté pan on medium high heat. Rub a stick of butter on the pan and add the sandwiches. Cover loosely with a piece of foil. Grill for 4 minutes. Remove the sandwiches long enough to rub in more butter, turn the sandwiches, put them back in the pan, cover with the foil again and grill for 3-4 minutes until well colored on the bottom.

The reason you want cheese on the top and bottom is so that the sandwiches hold together when you need to turn them while grilling.

I paid a visit to Pacific Ocean Market yesterday for a Chinese food fix. I had a short list of items I culled from a very interesting cookbook called “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook” by Fuchsia Dunlop. I’m not sure why, but the revolutionary part seems to include countless pictures of Mao.

I intend to make a stir fry for dinner for which the protein will be thousand-year-old preserved duck eggs. I had these in Hong Kong, more specifically on the island of Kowloon, when on liberty from the U. S. S. America during the Viet Nam war.

There were 8 or 10 of us who took the ferry from Hong Kong and then rode rickshaws to a restaurant someone had recommended to us. My memories are somewhat vague, but it was 1968 after all.

We were the only westerners in the place, a cause for much staring from around the dining room. I managed to communicate to the owner that we wanted a real feast – 10 courses, and asked him to suggest a menu constructed just for us. In a few minutes he returned to our table with a napkin on which he had written, in Chinese characters of course, a list of items. He was able to use just enough English words to tell us what everything was. It sounded swell.

I remember only two specific things we ate that night: grouper which was snared right out of a fish tank lining one wall of the room, and what I always called century eggs. Here is the description of them from Dunlop’s book:

“Preserved duck eggs, otherwise known as ‘century eggs’ or ‘thousand-year-old eggs,’ are caked in a paste made from soda, quicklime, salt, and ash, often with the addition of tea leaves or rice husks, and then left to mature for a rather prosaic three months. When the paste is scraped off and the shells broken, the eggs have creamy grey yolks, and dark brown, translucent albumens that are threaded with beautiful flowerlike patters which seem to be etched beneath the surface. These eggs can be eaten straight from the shell or used in cooking.”

I do not remember the taste. I do remember that we all ate them and cleaned the plate. I have some trepidation about them after all these years, but with the tea leaf curing part they are at least seemingly reminiscent of some tea soaked eggs Peter made a while back. They were quite lovely.

Another memorable thing about that evening is that the rickshaw ride cost $1 Hong Kong and the dinner about $10 Hong Kong. Each Hong Kong dollar was worth about 18 cents American. You do the math.

I have had fermented black beans in many a restaurant dish, but have never used them myself. I am fond of using ramen noodles to serve a stir fry. For one thing, they are extremely inexpensive; for another I love their texture. They also take only 3 minutes to cook. After draining them, I like to toss in just a couple of pinches of the powdered flavoring that comes with them. Don’t use too much or it will hijack your dish.

Bean curd skins are made from the protein-rich skin that forms on cooling soymilk during the preparation of bean curd. They are hung to dry.
Here’s my plan:

Red bell peppers and Chinese celery with century eggs

2 large red bell peppers cut into bite size pieces
Chinese celery, an amount about equal in volume to the peppers
Bean curd skin
1 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and lightly mashed
1 large clove garlic, minced
sesame oil
soy sauce
salted chiles, chopped
2 tbsp peanut oil for frying
2 preserved duck eggs, sliced into 6 pieces each

Rehydrate the bean curd skins in hot water. After 1/2 hour, drain and add more hot water for another 30 minutes. Cut the skins into bite size pieces.

You can, or course, use regular celery. The Chinese variety has thin stalks, quite bitter leaves, and a taste that is a bit more interesting than our everyday variety. Trim off all the leaves and cut the stalks into lengths approximating the size of the pepper pieces.

Heat the oil in a wok or large sauté pan until smoke begins to appear. Toss in the peppers and celery and bean curd skin and fry for several minutes, just until the peppers begin to soften. Add the garlic, fermented beans, red pepper flakes and salted chiles and continue frying for about a minute. Take the pan off the heat and drizzle very lightly with sesame oil and soy sauce. Use no more than 1 tbsp of each. Give the whole mixture a final toss and serve over ramen noodles. Arrange the eggs around the outside.

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