(Happy Chinese New Year! Let’s feast in the name of the rooster.)
(Happy Chinese New Year! Let’s feast in the name of the rooster.)
It’s remarkable how the most ubiquitous, seemly mundane ingredients can be utterly transformed with a fresh perspective. For example, eggplants show up in nearly every culture, every grocery store, and every cookbook. For the wide range of varieties available across the world, accompanied by the distinctive palate of flavors that each locale prefers, there’s truly an eggplant preparation for everyone. Despite the abundance of options, it seems we’re drawn back to the same recipes time and again, sticking to the familiar for the sake of simplicity. That was certainly the case for me, which is why the promise of an all-eggplant cooking class held both intrigue and skepticism. What new was there to learn about this staple vegetable that I naively presumed had already divulged its culinary secrets long ago?
The one way I would never have attempted to cook an eggplant turned out to be one of the most revolutionary. Believe it or not, steaming these burnished violet nightshades created one of the most superlative eggplant dishes to hit my plate in years. Previously ignorant to this dramatic metamorphosis, the idea of steamed eggplant sounded about as appealing as stewed gym socks. On the contrary, the softened and shredded fruit is downright silky, luxuriously caressing the tongue with unexpected richness.
Hailing from China, this unsung hero of eggplant cookery comes to life with an impossibly creamy glaze of toasted sesame, soy sauce, vinegar, and a gentle kick of heat. Such complex flavors seem to contradict the simple procedure, but that’s the true beauty of this secret formula. This radical departure from the standard menu was right there all along, hidden in plain sight
Beijing-Style Steamed Eggplant with Sesame Sauce
by Chef Philip Gelb
2 Chinese Eggplants, Halved Lengthwise
2 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Oil
2 Teaspoons Light Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Black Vinegar
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
1 Teaspoon Palm Sugar
1 Tablespoon Tahini
1 Tablespoon Chili Paste (Optional)
1 Thinly Sliced Scallion, to Garnish
Steam the eggplants for 10 – 15 minutes, until very tender. Meanwhile, combine all the remaining ingredients for the sauce in a large bowl.
Let the eggplants cool for a few minutes so that you can handle them comfortably, and then use your hands to tear them into long strips.
Toss the eggplants with the sauce and top with scallion. Serve immediately.
Makes 2 – 4 Servings
Call it ramen 2.0, or perhaps a limited summer edition of everyone’s favorite noodle. Chilled ramen dishes are nearly as abundant and diverse as hot renditions, but are overwhelmingly underrated, uncelebrated and overlooked, in favor of more familiar preparations. Not all soups must emerge from the kitchen with a plume of steam, nor gently charred and still radiating heat. When it already feels like you’re standing in an oven just by opening up the front door, nothing hits the spot better than a refreshing bowl of ramen on ice, no matter the flavor.
They start out just as before, made of the very same stuff as their hot brethren and cooked in the same fashion. The difference is that after reaching the perfect state of toothsome tenderness, the spry young strands are immediately plunged into a shock of ice-cold water, simultaneously arresting the cooking process and dropping the temperature down quite a few degrees. Expertly guided once again by acclaimed chef and noodle master Philip Gelb, the results were practically instant- But clearly far superior.
Confronted with a bowlful of fresh, naked noodles, the options of embellishment are simply overwhelming. Every Asian culture has their own unique summertime staples that color the humble alkaline noodles with a rainbow of different flavors. Starting simple, the Japanese tsukemen truly allows the delicate nature of this handmade pasta to shine. Plunging mouthfuls into a bowl of deeply savory chilled broth, topped with a light smattering of scallions and a touch of wasabi for a bright finish, each mouthful is an essential experience of cold noodle elegance.
Kongguksu, hailing from Korea, might be the least known ramen preparation in the western world. It is a great shame that its popularity is not more widespread across the states, as it has no equal when it comes to both refreshment and satisfaction. Floating in a sea of homemade soymilk, enriched with sesame and almonds, ramen noodles are treated to a bath of rich, creamy soup. Ice cubes are tossed right into the bowl to keep things cool, through and through, ensuring that the first taste will be just as brilliant as the last. The secret is all in the soy beans, of course. Taking the extra step of removing the hulls creates the most silky texture imaginable. Though tempting, don’t even dream of taking a shortcut and buying prepared soymilk; once you’ve gone through the trouble of making your own ramen, soaking a few beans should be no big deal.
Finally, bringing the heat through bold spices but no actual fire, Szechuan Sesame Noodles are the most intense yet crowd-pleasing way to cool your noodles. Infused with lip-tingling, mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, there is nothing subtle about this dish. It’s an in-your-face, action-packed thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. That intense flavor can be adjusted according to preference, but the whole point of this dish is to make you sweat to maximize the cooling effect. It’s scientifically proven that sweating is actually one of the most effective ways to beat the heat, and this Chinese staple will definitely yield delicious results.
It would be impossible to pick one favorite from these three completely unique takes on the cold ramen noodle. Luckily, Chef Philip was generous enough to offer his recipes for all of them, so you don’t have to choose. Bear in mind that each preparation will need a new batch of ramen noodles and serve about four hungry eaters.
Now there’s no reason you can’t keep your cool this summer, and still do it in good taste.
Bring 2 quarts of water to a rapid boil. Drop in noodles and cook for about 60 seconds. Once the noodles are al dente, rinse in cold water to immediately stop the cooking process.
Japanese Cold Noodle Dipping Sauce
1 2/3 Cup Kombu Dashi (Seaweed Stock)
1/2 Cup Sake
4 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Palm Sugar
Place all the ingredients in a saucepan. Set over medium heat, bring to a boil, and simmer for 3 minutes. Let cool and chill completely before serving. Add in as many of the optional ingredients into the sauce as desired, to taste, or set them out in small bowls for diners to mix into the sauce at will.
Kon Gook Soo / Kongguksu (Cold Soybean Noodle Soup)
1 Cup Dried Soybeans, Soaked Overnight, Rinsed and Drained
2 Tablespoons Raw Sesame Seeds, Soaked Overnight, Rinsed and Drained
1/4 Cup Raw Almonds, Soaked Overnight, Rinsed and Drained
6 Cups Cold Water
1 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon White Pepper
1 English Cucumber, Julienned
Crushed Ice, as Needed
Cook soybeans in 1 quart of boiling water for 15 minutes. Rinse and drain. Place soybeans in a bowl, fill with water, and gently rub the beans until they split and the hulls come off. The hulls will float to the top and can be easily discarded while draining the water. Remove at least 90% of the hulls.
Add the hulled and drained soybeans to a blender along with the sesame seeds, almonds, and cold water. Puree on high speed for 2 minutes and chill this mixture until very cold. Add salt and pepper, stirring well and adjusting seasonings to taste, as needed.
Divide the cooked noodles between four bowls. Place a handful of ice in each, and top the noodles with sliced cucumber. Pour the soymilk on top and serve immediately.
Cold Szechuan Sesame Noodles
1/2 Cup Kombu Stock
1/4 Cup Roasted Peanuts
1/4 Cup Toasted Sesame Seeds
1 (or More) Fresh Thai Chili
2 Teaspoons Minced Garlic
1 Heaping Teaspoon Szechuan Peppercorns, Toasted
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Dark Chinese Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Palm Sugar
1 Tablespoon Chiankiang Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Minced Fresh Cilantro
1 Tablespoon Szechuan Chili Oil
English Cucumber, Slivered
In a blender, add all the sauce ingredients and puree until completely smooth. Chill thoroughly.
To serve, toss together the noodles, sauce, and all of the garnishes desired. Serve immediately.
Each Preparation Makes 4 Servings
The title of “fried rice” is really a misnomer in most cases. Across a wide sampling of restaurant offerings from high- to low-end, this perennial takeout staple rarely, if ever, approaches a state close to being fried. Not deep fried, not pan fried, and in the worse cases, barely even sauteed. Merely warmed in a hot wok at best, it’s little more than a pile of stale, soy sauce-soaked leftovers tossed with a few limp vegetables if you’re lucky. While it’s true that even the worst fried rice is still reasonably satisfying, fulfilling the starchy component of a typically greasy meal in need of a carbohydrate foil, rarely does it stand out as extraordinary. Such a shame that this staple isn’t given just an extra ounce of respect to elevate it beyond the realm of mediocrity.
The trouble is, there’s a real art to crafting actual fried rice, complete with chewy clusters and crispy edges, and a certain brand of bravery required to crank up the heat to high. It’s not actually difficult, but demands a bit more finesse than simply tossing a bunch of grains into a skillet.
It’s the kind of anything goes dish where no recipe is needed, and pretty much every vegetable addition tastes good. As long as there’s a healthy splash of soy sauce, perhaps a bit of sauteed garlic and ginger, you really can’t go wrong. The real beauty of fried rice is its versatility, no matter how you dress it up or down.
Vegetarian Steamed Buns from Imperial Tea Court
Stinky Tofu from Taste of Formosa
Vegetarian Hand-Pulled Noodles from House of Pancakes
Tofu & Mushrooms from House of Pancakes
Mapo Tofu Bao from Hella Vegan Eats
Spicy Beancurd from Shangri-La
Vegetarian Goose from Shanghai Dumpling King
Tofu Thread Salad from Shanghai Dumpling King
Vegetarian Steamed Dumplings from Shanghai Dumpling King
With about half the heaping mound still staring back at me, my enthusiasm began to flag. Fragrant, glistening vaguely in the afternoon light, it was some of the most genuinely meaty dumpling filling I had ever prepared, and yet I couldn’t muster the patience to keep stuffing it into those tiny little wrappers. The final total of “40 – 50” is admittedly a wild estimate, a complete stab in the dark if we’re being honest, because I never made it to either of those numbers. An extra set of hands would do wonders on a recipe like this; simple but time consuming, demanding few skills but undivided attention. Giving up on the project never crossed my mind, but it became abundantly clear that there would be leftover filling.
This is not what I’d call leftovers, bearing the negative connotations of unwanted extras. Before neatly packing everything away for a later date, the next recipe was already jumping about through my synapses, the full procedure and list of ingredients unraveling itself in my brain. Perhaps we can call this concept an alternative preparation, since it’s worth making the original filling to enjoy, with or without any dumplings in mind.
Mapo tofu won’t win any beauty contests, but someone who turns down this dish based on looks is making a terrible mistake. Packing in umami flavor with ease, the soft cubes of tofu bear a spicy bite, swimming in a meaty stew of chili-spiked seitan. Naturally, my approach is far from authentic, spanning a number of Asian cultures just through the ingredients. Malaysian sambal oelek brings the heat while a spoonful of Chinese fermented black beans add their characteristic salty and savory twang. You could jump borders again and opt for a Japanese soy sauce, if you were after a genuine cultural melting pot… But it would taste just as delicious no matter what. Mapo tofu is the kind of dish that a cook would really have to try to mess up. Go ahead, experiment with sriracha instead of the sambal, dark miso paste instead of black beans; after it all simmers together and melds as one, it’s all good.
1 1/2 Cups Seitan Dumpling Filling
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Garlic
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
3 Skinny Scallions, Thinly Sliced on the Diagonal, Divided
1 – 3 Tablespoons Sambal Oelek
1/2 Cup Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth or Water
1 Tablespoon Cornstarch
3 Tablespoons Fermented Black Bean Paste
2 – 3 Tablespoons Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Brown Rice Syrup or Light Brown Sugar
1 Pound Soft (But not Silken) Tofu, Drained
Prepare the ground seitan according to the dumpling recipe and set aside.
Heat the sesame oil in a medium stock pot or large saucepan over medium heat. Toss in the garlic and ginger once the oil is shimmering and quickly saute, just until fragrant and lightly browned. Add the prepared seitan mixture into the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Meanwhile, whisk together the black pepper, two of the sliced scallions, the first tablespoon of sambal oelek, broth, and cornstarch. Beat out any lumps of starch so that the liquid is perfectly smooth before using it to deglaze the hot pan. Scrape the bottom of the pan with your spatula to make sure nothing sticks or burns, and turn down the heat to medium-low.
Stir in the black bean past, first two tablespoons of soy sauce, and brown rice syrup. Let it cook and mingle for a minute or two before giving it a taste; add more sambal or soy sauce as desired, but as you adjust seasonings, don’t even think of reaching for the salt shaker. These are all very salty ingredients, and you’ll end up with something inedible if you don’t manage the sodium level very carefully.
Once you’re pleased with the flavors developing, cut your tofu into 1/2-inch cubes and gently lower them into the stew. Soft tofu is rather fragile, so don’t go haphazardly stirring the whole mixture and smashing them to bits. Rather, use your spatula to fold everything together.
Continue to cook until the liquid has thickened and reaches a rapid bubble. Let cool for a few minutes before topping with the remaining sliced scallions, and serve with white rice (or any other cooked grain) if desired.
Makes 3 – 4 Servings
As young children across the country feverishly unwrap mounds of tinsel-clad packages, parents tending a huge roast with all the fixings for dinner, an entirely different tradition marks my Christmas day. The classic Jewish Christmas, otherwise known as seeing a movie and getting Chinese food takeout, seems to be growing in popularity. Who knew it was even a thing 5, 10 years ago? Suddenly everyone knows about this once obscure and occasionally controversial plan. In fact, quite a few families that still lovingly string up Christmas trees and sing carols every year also join in on the fun, too. It’s the ultimate secular holiday that everyone can enjoy.
Options may be limited for fellow meatless eaters, but no matter how many times I get plain old broccoli and tofu, it just never gets old. Maybe the MSG makes it particularly addictive, but there are few things quite as satisfying as the instant gratification of savory, salty brown sauce smothering cubes of crispy fried bean curd and tender green florets. Venturing to recreate this endlessly versatile sauce, suddenly the sky is the limit for protein alternatives. As an extra-special treat this year, a rare package of Konjac-based vegan shrimp remained on ice, tucked away in the back of the freezer for just such an opportunity.
Disarmingly similar in coloring and surprisingly bouncy, their chewy texture was disconcertingly similar to actual seafood, according to the omnivores at the table. They imparted relatively little flavor though, for better or for worse, so while novel, I think I’d still prefer my tofu standby. Next time, I’ll gladly fire up the oil and toss in a few cubes instead, although you can’t go too far wrong with a solid brown sauce.
“Shrimp” and Broccoli
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
3 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Tablespoon Fresh Ginger, Grated
1/3 Cup Soy Sauce
1 Cup Vegetable Stock
1/3 Cup Mirin
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch
Sesame Seeds, to Garnish (Optional)
Cooked White Rice, to Serve
Thaw out the frozen shrimp if using, or prepare your tofu. Place the broccoli florets in a microwave-safe dish with a splash of water, and steam for 2 – 4 minutes, until fork-tender. Drain and blanch in ice water to stop the cooking and keep the broccoli bright green. Set aside.
To prepare the brown sauce, begin by heating the sesame oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add in the garlic and ginger, and cook briefly, until aromatic. Meanwhile, whisk together all of the remaining ingredient in a separate bowl, being sure to beat out any clumps of starch so that the mixture is completely smooth. Carefully pour the liquids into the hot pan, standing away from the stove in case of any splashback. Whisk gently as the sauce comes up to temperature, until it reaches a full boil and has visible thickened. Turn off the heat and let the sauce cool for a minute or two.
Place the broccoli and shrimp (or tofu) in a large bowl, and toss with a sizable dollop of brown sauce. There will likely be extra sauce, so apply it sparingly. Continue drizzling in sauce until the goodies are coated to your liking. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with a light sprinkling of sesame seeds. Enjoy with a mound of hot rice, and have a very Happy Holiday!
Serves 3 – 4