27 May 2011

Kindling noodles (yi bin ran mian)

More noodles from Szechuan. Super easy. You are advised to make asap if you have not done so already dear reader.

  • noodles (I found plain flour ones worked very well)
  • chilli oil, soy sauce, sesame oil
  • walnuts, peanuts, sesame seeds
  • preserved vegetables, spring onions and green veg

Kindling noodles, so called because the noodles look like small sticks of wood allegedly, appear in Fuschia Dunlop's consistently interesting book Sichuan Cookery but this is my simplified version. She bakes the nuts in the oven which I think is a waste of time as they are easily toasted in a pan. She suggests chopping them down to the size of rice which I'm sure is the authentic way to do things - I suggest leaving some a bit chunky for textural variety. It is traditional to serve the noodles nude with piles of oil, veg and nuts on top for excitement, but I've just stirred everything together for ease.

Szechuan chilli oil is well worth making at home. It takes under five minutes. Get an empty jam jar that can take some hot oil without threatening your life with flying shards of glass, heat up some vegetable oil and pour it over dried chillies (whole and/or flaked), Szechuan peppercorns and a small amount of fennel seeds. It should go nice and red. I sometimes fry all the spices in the oil for a minute to get a good strong flavour going on and then decant the lot. The fennel adds a tang of aniseed, occasional but wonderful, to proceedings. When using the oil try dredging a bit of sediment from the bottom of the jar. Delish!

In a big bowl combine chilli oil with dashes of light and dark soy - you are going to need quite a decent amount but can of course top up later. Add preserved vegetables - if you use Tianjin (highly salted cabbage) it needs a rinse, if you go for something else (you can get cucumber, turnip, cabbage, mustard greens, kelp and more besides very cheaply in little pouches in East Asian supermarkets) it won't. Both options taste great. Again, you need a decent amount but can add more later.

the big bowl of goodness

Toast the same amount of walnuts and peanuts in a dry pan, stirring on a lowish heat. After four minutes add the same amount again of seasame seeds. Keep stirring for another three minutes. Pound roughly in a mortar and pestle, leaving a few lumps in for texture. You want a rich, oily paste to form to help coat the noodles. Add to the big bowl.

Put the noodles on to cook. They need loads of water. I never put enough in.

Fry spring onions and green vegetables of choice (a cabbage type vegetable is my favourite for Szechuan food but you could also use spinach, cucumber etc) and when they look good combine with all the other ingredients and add the drained noodles.

Stir and eat with the soy sauce, chilli and sesame oils your elbow.

apols for blurred pic

Well tasty, trust me. Nuts and chillis seem to have some special chemistry of mutual flavour augmentation. The basic mix of toasted nuts with chilli oil and soy sauce with noodles can of course take anything – leftover meat, a fried egg, egg cooked into the noodles, the preserved vegetables, tofu or just a glut of whatever is cheap and ripe down your market. It’s not something to be precious about: get experimenting!

Food and Drink in Chengdu

I can't believe I only just uncovered a whole blog dedicated to eating in Szechuan's capital Chengdu.

It's great! I'm currently in a deep and profound reverie reading the posts and looking at the food. Some interesting stuff mentioned, including pig's brains, stewed goat, pumpkin congee and hot and numbing potatoes.

I love that you can get a hot and numbing burger in McDonald's and who can resist a restaurant with a slogan of Eat fatty beef every day || Women more beautiful || Men more healthy and strong.

23 May 2011

Turnip and guanciale frittata

I still have a drying crust of cured pig's cheek in the back of my fridge. The guanciale I paired with leeks to make a simple pasta dish has nearly been used up but I had a hunch that the little left would well compliment the lonely turnip below it in the salad draw. Two full and old-fashioned flavours: turnip and pig fat, surely both eaten (possibly in combination?, answers on a postcard) for centuries in farmhouses across much of Europe. We also had lots of eggs in the fridge and lots of eggs usually leads to one thing - frittata.

Oh wondrous egg-based matrix! Ready to receive and cosset the humblest of foodstuffs.

  • eggs (quite a few)
  • guanciale (or another fatty pork product such as pancetta or chorizo)
  • turnip
  • nutty mushrooms

Cut the guanciale into small dice. Being so fatty you want to get it really crisp and it's going to be harder to do this with bigger pieces (I wish I'd gone smaller). Set aside.

Fry on a gentle heat to render the fat and being the crisping. Continue until tantalisingly browned.

Cut the turnip and mushrooms into dice twice the size of the meat. Fry the turnip in the pork fat for ten minutes in a fairly low heat to cook and begin to caramelise. Add the mushrooms and fry for five minutes. Turnips respond well to black pepper: add according to taste.

Reintroduce the guanciale.

Beat the eggs and pour into the mixture. When it begins to firm up work over the bottom of the frittata with a spatula to prevent sticking. After five minutes either flip the frittata over by first transferring to a plate or finish under the grill.

Serve with a salad and bread.

with radish and beetroot salad

20 May 2011

Dan dan noodles (dan dan mian) (kind of)

Just a quickie this one. Chicken breast is not normally something I have knocking around, possessing as it does a lack of taste and a monotony that almost renders it pointless (rubbish stuff that is), and generally fulfilling the meat needs of people who don't seem to actually like meat. But I got this stuff for cheap in a supermarket and I can never resist a bargain. Perhaps too, using up cheap ingredients and making do with what is available is all part of the traditional Szechaun approach to cooking! I wanted something quick and spicy. So I used a dan dan noodle recipe to try and make a chicken version of the Szechuan classic.

  • chicken (or minced pork for legit version)
  • noodles
  • spring onions and/or green vegetables
  • Shoaxing wine, Chinkiang vinegar, soy sauce, Tianjin preserved vegetables, chilli oil, Szechuan pepper

    Tianjin preserved vegetables

    Soak the noodles in boiling water. I used bean thread noodles which are transparent.

    Fry the preserved vegetables and set aside.

    Fry the meat and douse with some cooking wine, vinegar and soy sauce. Add some chilli oil and chopped spring onion. I added chopped courgette and spring greens here instead - obviously the flexibility of this type of cooking means you can use up whatever dregs are in your fridge at the back..

    When the meat is nearly done put the noodles in and add enough of their soaking water to ensure they  become fully cooked in the last couple of minutes that the meat needs. I didn't put in quite enough water at this point and the noodles retained a mild but unwanted bite.

    Toast some Szechuan pepper in a dry pan. Crush when fragrant (needs about four minutes - keep an eye on things to prevent burning).

    Taste and beef up the flavour with anything else it might need. I found it needed more than might be envisaged. I added some Hunan style home-fermented chillies too (the red below).

    Sprinkle with Szechuan pepper and serve. To be honest I don't think this works as well with chicken. The fatty, salty kick of the pork just marries so perfectly with the noodles and the spice. Still a decent and quick supper though.

    13 May 2011

    Kuru fasulye

    Sometimes I see a recipe posted on a blog and immediately know that I want to cook and eat it. The simple looking stewed beans on the super Eating Asia was one such dish. Beans long cooked with tomato and pepper, sweet and rich with butter and lamb fat. A modest warmth from some dried chilli. Clearly this is an amazing combination of tastes.

    So off to Turkish Food Centre I went. First problem is that TFC is so well stocked, so good a shop in fact, that they had three rather than the expected one type of dried white bean. I cast my mind back to the post and tried to remember the shape of them. Butter bean size? No, maybe too big, something a little smaller. In the end I went for dermason fasulye which looked about right. I left on the shelf butter beans, something called Argentinian bean and a few other things. I had a guess at what would go into a hearty rendition of the dish rather than digging out a recipe.

    • fatty lamb on the bone
    • two cups of dried white beans
    • a couple of red peppers cut small
    • a couple of onions cut small
    • a head of garlic
    • chilli flakes
    • a can of tomatoes
    • butter

    Fry the onions in some butter for ten minutes with two big pinches of chilli (the mild, tasty Turkish kirmizi biber is well worth tracking down).

    Add the lamb, dried beans and tomatoes, top up with water and boil for an hour and a half. Fatty and bony lamb is the best for giving the dish a good overall lamb flavour. I used scrag from the freezer left over from congee Mk. 2.

    Add the peeled garlic cloves (keep them whole to save effort – they will dissolve in the liquid) and cook for another hour. Prod the meat and encourage the removal of any meat, whilst leaving the bones in the mix for flavour.

    Add the chopped pepper. Assess the situation. Are the beans cooked? They should be creamy inside with a uniform give when bitten. There should be none of the sudden shifts in texture that pockets of under-cooked bean can bring. Cook until the pepper is soft and the beans are as desired. Is this dish gummy, oily and comforting? If it isn’t add some butter, olive oil or lamb tail fat.


    Serve with rice, bulgar or Turkish bread, a fried or boiled egg if you want more protein and some pickles.

    Do not cook this if you are in a rush. These modest little beans took an age to cook. I didn’t get the sauce quite as intense as I wished. I’m going to try again. Maybe I can get some rendered lamb tail fat from TFC. Their dried bean selection is a sight to behold – surely they can melt down a few tails in a back-room somewhere?

    After googling the beans it seems they are white kidney beans. However in the finished dish they looked very much like baked beans - which are haricot. So I'm not sure.

    9 May 2011

    Dal 3 - red lentil

    Red lentils start very red and end up yellow. True stories.

    I'm working my way through all the legumes I can lay my hands on for Dal Quest. After that maybe I'll try combining them. For #3 I used red lentils which have one great advantage over some other dried pulses - they cook extremely quickly. Like twenty minutes and they are down to a pleasing gloop. No overnight soaking, no mega thinking ahead, just put them on to boil whilst attending to the temper and they might even beat the onions and spices in the other pan.

    They did in this case as I wanted to caramelise the onions a bit in ghee to give a sweetness to the finished dish. I also wanted to try ginger for the first time in Dal Quest to see how it fared.

    • two onions
    • two cups of red lentil
    • two thumbs of chopped ginger
    • two green chillies
    • cumin, garam masala, turmeric, chilli powder, ghee

    Boil the lentils (rinse the starch of them in a sieve first) with a pinch of stock and shakes of salt, turmeric and chilli powder.

    Fry two medium onions chopped fine in ghee for ten minutes on a lowish heat with the ginger. They should start to gold and soften. Add cumin, chopped chilli, turmeric and continue to fry for another fifteen to twenty-five minutes. Add the garam masala and stir.

    When the lentils are done strain any excess water off. When the onions look soft, limpid and wonderful introduce them to the lentils and lubricate with some more ghee.

    in the dim light reminiscent of voided baby mush but trust me, mega delish

    With a veg curry of turnip, spinach and okra, some rice and raita this made a pretty decent combo. In this version it's the lentils themselves that star. The spices and onion do enough to simply foreground the earthy lentil essence without dominating it. Lentils need friends to prevent them being boring: like us all they seem to become more themselves with a little support and attention.

    5 May 2011

    Dal 2 - chickpea and onion

    And so onto chickpea, mightiest of legume. I've always advocated tinned chickpeas being the lazy man I am but dal quest is surely as good a time as any to have a go on the dried versions. This lot had a soak in boiling water overnight (well it started boiling, I'm sure the natural laws of thermodynamics meant that it cooled in that period) with a sprinkle of turmeric.
    Lots of dal recipes suggest boiling the legumes until cooked and then adding a preparation or tempering of fried spices at the end (AKA chaunk (Hindi: छौंक), chhaunk, chounk, chonk, chhounk, chhonk, tarka, tadka, bagar, phoron, phoran in Bengali, vaghaar (Gujarati: વઘાર) and popu). So that is what I did. Sort of.

     please note silicon Le Creuset spatula, heat proof to a million million degrees

    • dried chickpeas
    • lots of onions (one per person)
    • curry leaves, turmeric, cumin, brown mustard seeds, garlic, green chillies

    After soaking the chickpeas set them to boil in a covered pan. They are going to need about forty minutes.

    Meantime fry the onion in a healthy dollop of ghee with a little sliced garlic. After twelve minutes push the onion to the side of the pan and allow some ghee to pool in the middle - add a little more if needs be. Put in a fair amount of cumin and allow to fry in the fat and surrender their oils.

    Add the other spices in sensible amounts and the chilli and fry them for five minutes in the pan, stirring to prevent burning. Stir everything together and continue to cook under all golden and soft.

    When the chickpeas are nearly done combine with the pan of onions and spices and cook together for five minutes or until done.

    I guess this wasn't a proper tempering as you chuck that on right at the last minute and serve straight away. This was more of a two stage cooking process. I think it worked excellently. The chickpeas have their own time and space to concentrate on softening up and the spices all get to spend time together in a pan with the onions. The onion totally broke down and formed the most wonderful sweet and aromatic paste to hold the chickpeas. Don't scrimp on them: you need serious amounts here.

    And what of the dried chickpeas, the great labour of love? Very fine. More characterful for sure. A soft interior like the canned version but with a more evident jacket, a tasty, textured exterior to welcome your every molar.

      2 May 2011

      Squid with peas and mint

      Squid's have been christened just about correctly. The single rubbery syllable, squirting muscle and watery propulsion: they must really dart about in the sea. Above the water they look rather alien - the thick sheath of muscle, the plasticy translucent mantle and the horrible mucus in the body cavity.

      Squid are notoriously rubbery when cooked of course, and to combat that you must either cook very briefly (a quick dip, floured, into a deep-fat fryer for instance) or at some length. This recipe goes down the second route. It's a simple combination of squid with fish-favourites white wine and fennel, plus peas and mint. It's in the second Moro book (billed as cuttlefish with broad beans) and is well worth a go. As ever I've tweaked the version to my taste - fiddle at will with the basics below.

      • squid - a couple per person as a main
      • a medium glass of white wine and a big one of water
      • paprika, fennel seeds, bay leaves
      • onion and garlic
      • peas or broad beans
      • mint

      Fry one sliced small onion in olive oil per squid. Add sliced garlic.

      After ten or fifteen minutes add a few bay leaves and a teaspoon of fennel seeds. Fry for a few more minutes. Add a teaspoon of paprika. Add the wine and water to make up a sauce. Add the squid or cuttlefish chopped into small pieces. Keep the crowns of tentacles complete unless the beasts are monsters. They will shrink when cooked.

      The muscle fibres will contract and tighten when exposed to heat. They need to be cooked enough to start breaking down. This may well take around fifty minutes on a low, puttering heat. Keep an eye on things and stir from time to time.

       more tentacle vicar?

      When the squid tastes done add the peas or beans and cook till done. Good time to draw for the frozen veg here. Also added some ripped up mint - as much as you see fit. I found I needed more than I first thought. I gave it a minute on the heat to wilt the herb down pleasantly.

      Wow. The sauce itself almost outshines the squid. It's perfectly balanced and made to be mopped up with a fat slice of bread grilled and rubbed with a cut garlic clove. This sauce would also be excellent with a fried piece of white fish or how about some asparagus, peppers and artichokes for a veg version?