Monthly Archives: July 2011

LightRefreshingCool: soba noodles with dipping sauce

Shanghai summer, electric with the endless buzz of cicadas, is in full swing. With the mercury hitting — and passing — 35C for days on end, hovering over a gas stove to make a hot meal begins to its appeal. Ice cream and fruit smoothies keep me cool, but what to do for an actual meal?

Enter soba noodles, which I’d prepared before in various ways. This very useful blog post I came across when googling how to cook soba noodles properly inspired me to do it the summertime Japanese way, served cold with dipping sauce.

I’ve made a few modifications from the above-linked recipe based on what I’ve got in the kitchen and to suit my own taste: plates instead of bamboo sieves (which look pretty but look like a pain to wash), peanut/sesame-based sauce rather than the traditional soba tsuyu, and whatever cool toppings I have on hand (or none at all).

The result is a quick-to-prepare and fun-to-eat meal that’s high on flavour and low on heat. And kinda addictive — I’ve had this three times in the past 4 days! The recipe below is my twist on the theme.



15-minute cold soba noodles with nutty dipping sauce

100g soba (buckwheat) noodles (荞麦面)

Dipping sauce
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 tsbp peanut butter or pure sesame paste (black or white)
1 tsp black rice vinegar (鎮江香醋)
1 tsp sesame oil
4-5 tbsp lukewarm water
1.5 tsp sugar
2 tsp light soy sauce

Toppings
1 tbsp finely chopped green onion
Half a carrot, cut into matchsticks
Half a cucumber, cut into matchsticks
Other raw veggies or cold tofu

1. Sprinkle soba noodles in large pot of boiling water. Use chopsticks to immerse all noodles in water, and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes or until cooked through (taste to test).
2. While noodles are cooking, prepare the toppings by cutting up the vegetables. If using carrot and/or cucumber, sprinkle lightly with salt and drizzle with a little sesame oil.
3. In a small bowl, mix all sauce ingredients together with a spoon. Peanut butter may remain in small clumps. Taste and adjust amounts to suit your preference. Place green onions in sauce.
4. Once noodles are cooked, drain into a colander, then rinse under a steady stream of cold water until noodles are cool to the touch. Wash the noodles actively by picking up bunches and swishing them around directly under the water until they are no longer gummy. Or follow these detailed steps. Because Chinese tap water isn’t safe for consumption, either do a final rinse with potable water, or pour (fresh) boiling water over the noodles as a last step.
5. Take small bunches of noodles and place them one by one on a plate or serving platter.
6. To eat, pick up a portion of noodles with chopsticks and dip briefly in sauce, then eat immediately. Serve with cold vegetables.

Serves 1. Increase amounts proportionally to suit additional diners. Each person should get their own bowl of dipping sauce, unless you don’t mind sharing :-)

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In love: light green spaghetti

I’m in love with the zucchini in noodle form.

Although its heavy-handed supermarket packaging upsets the environmentalist in me, I’ve learned to peel back the plastic and see it for the astonishingly versatile vegetable that it is.

Having come across pictures of enviable zucchini noodles, I just had to get my hands on a julienne slicer and try it for myself. After a good long look in my local Trust-Mart last week, I settled for a clunky 8.9 RMB double-ended vegetable peeler/grater that, while decent with the zucchini, birthed bruises on my finger with its half-brained non-ergonomic design.

The great thing about the zucchini is that it’s firmer than a cucumber but not hard like a carrot, making it a delight to handle on the chopping board. Once I got the hang of it, my zucchini-noodling quickly got up to speed. I left the zucchini strands to “sweat” for 15 minutes — not sure if this step is necessary, but I’d rather wait than risk having the stuff go watery on me. Plus, this gave me time to cook the rest of the ingredients.

As zucchini water drip-dropped away, I cooked up some button mushrooms, doufu gan (dried tofu) strips, and the chopped zucchini, and made a simple white sauce. Once this was done, I cooked the zucchini noodles with some green pepper strips, threw everything else back in the pan along with some herbs, and got them nice and cozy with one another.

WOW. I’d thought my ribboned zucchini was good, but this was mind-blowing. These zucchini noodles had the look and feel of spaghetti: firm but yielding with just enough bite, substantial (not watery or mushy) and perfectly al dente. Tastewise, the mild-flavoured zucchini “held” my rather thin cream sauce very well in each forkful, making for delightful slurping.

The other ingredients, especially the mushrooms, were excellent accompaniments, which was a relief considering I hadn’t followed a recipe. The tofu, which is mildly flavoured with five-spice, had been a last-minute throw in, but rather than clash with the western flavours, it gave the dish a welcome meatiness (kinda like chicken strips).

The most divine aspect of this meal was that I was getting the pasta satisfaction from a vegetable, and felt completely guiltless about it. Who knew that simply cutting a vegetable differently could transform its identity, and even allow it to unabashedly take the place of something so comforting as pasta?

Next time, though, I’ll try to make it an even lighter, greener spaghetti by getting the zucchini from the wet market, where it is sold wrapped only in its own skin.


Zucchini spaghetti with mushrooms in cream sauce
I’m sure these zucchini noodles would also be at home in a tomato-based sauce, though I like the idea of a creamy sauce because the noodles are already low in calories — if I’m doing all this work to make my own noodles, might as well indulge a little bit :-) Feel free to play around with the toppings, but don’t let their volume overwhelm the noodles.

The noodles
4 medium-sized zucchini, peeled
1 tsp salt

The topping
1 pack (12-16) button mushrooms, thoroughly washed and sliced
2 pieces dried tofu (the less flavoured the better), thinly sliced
1 green pepper, julienned
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

The sauce
1 cup milk (I used whole milk)
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
Salt to taste

Extras
Black pepper
Italian herb mix (basil, oregano, rosemary, etc.)
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Olive oil

1. “Noodle” the zucchini by running a julienne slicer/large-holed grater along the length of the vegetable. With each zucchini, stop when you reach the seeded core. Chop up the cores into small bits and set aside. Place zucchini noodles in a colander and toss with salt. Set a dish underneath the colander to hold drained liquid.
2. Heat 2 tsp oil on a pan and add mushrooms. Sautee 2-3 min until soft, then season with black pepper. Remove from pan.
3. Add tofu slices and chopped zucchini (I added half and saved half for the next meal, but feel free to add all) to pan and cook for 2-3 min in leftover mushroom liquid. Remove from pan.
4. Prepare a basic cream sauce by melting butter on low heat, stirring in flour until smooth (about 3 minutes), and adding milk and cooking on medium-heat heat for another 3 minutes, stirring the whole time. Add salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl.
5. Heat 2 tsp oil in pan, add garlic, green pepper, and zucchini strands. Cook, tossing, for 3 minutes, then mix in the rest of the ingredients. Add herbs, red pepper flakes, and salt to taste. Allow sauce to be thoroughly reheated, then serve with freshly ground black pepper.

Serves 2 as a meal (4 medium-platefuls).


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A bad phone break-up with our neighbourhood Dongbei diner

I broke up with one of my favourite restaurants yesterday. I’d been collecting photos to write a positive review of this place, but what I already have will do for a farewell.

As Sean and I don’t eat out super often, there are few restaurants where we would be considered “regulars”. The one place we’ve found ourselves going back to again and again, and has in recent weeks become our Sunday night ritual, is a small Dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) restaurant at the back gate of East China Normal University, a pleasant 15-minute walk/5-minute bike ride from our apartment.

The love

Known for its jiaozi (dumplings) and other solid, cheap eats, Dong Bei Ren Jia (东北人家, a very generic name) is somewhat of an institution among nearby residents as well as current and former students at the university. Sean and I have written about it on CNNGo and I gushed about its caramelized sugar-coated sweet potato fritters in a long-ago post.

It used to be a tired, grubby place with a dozen or so tables and way too many bored-looking employees, but early this year, after its usual month-long Chinese New Year hiatus, half the space was turned into a fried chicken stall, while the other half was given a makeover, its staff and menu — including the fritters — trimmed and delivery made available.

We loved it for its homestyle dishes, cheap and delicious jiaozi (including 2 vegetarian varieties), and its reliable presence in the midst of constant change along the back gate food street. I’ve taken out-of-towners here despite its unimpressive decor. We had been devastated to hear a few months back that the food street was going to be demolished, but had been elated to learn the closures wouldn’t reach this restaurant. While its laoban (owner), a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who barks and spends most of the time reading a magazine at the cashier, is less than charming, we grew to appreciate her gruff manner as part of the experience. On one of our recent visits, she asked if we were vegetarian, and that’s when I thought, awesome, she recognizes us now! and began to get that fuzzy feeling of home: This had become our Chinese neighbourhood diner.

This past Sunday, we decided to try out their delivery since I wanted to make a cold appetizer at home. As free delivery requires a minimum 30 RMB order, we ordered 4 dozen jiaozi — 2 dozen chive & egg, 2 dozen zucchini & egg — for 32 RMB. The dumplings arrived, hit the spot; our love for the place grew.

The break-up

Then yesterday. I’d taken the day off to rest up at home, and we were both in the mood for jiaozi even though we’d had them just three days ago. I called up the place at 11:30am, but was told that they couldn’t deliver to our apartment since the laoban‘s son wasn’t around. Sean agreed to bike over to pick up the 4 dozen dumplings, so I told them fine, I’ll come pick it up.

Ten minutes after Sean left for the restaurant, I got a call from the laoban, demanding to know why I wasn’t there yet and if I was coming ’cause the food was getting cold. Puzzled, since I’d assumed Sean would’ve arrived by then, I told them “Will be there soon”. I called Sean immediately after hanging up, and he said he’d just picked up the food. Cool.

A few minutes later, I got a call back from the woman, who immediately started yelling at me. She asked if I’d sent a “foreign student” to come pick up the dumplings, and I said yes. Why didn’t you tell me on the phone?? You didn’t say you were sending a foreigner to get your food so we made another 4 dozen for you. Now we have 4 dozen jiaozi that’s going to go to waste. What kind of customer are you??

A bit confused — how did she not have a clue that Sean was there to pick up the food I’d ordered? — and not knowing how to fight back, I took a deep breath and simply said Sorry.

Which unleashed another round of barking that made it seem as if I had tricked her into cooking a duplicate order. Feeling personally attacked at this point, I told her her attitude was bad and I was never going back there again… to which she snapped, It doesn’t matter if you don’t come back. The point is you made me waste all this food.

To that, I suggested that she serve the food to someone else, and hung up.

This was outrageous. How likely was it that two different parties had placed the exact same (vegetarian, no less) order at the same time? She had misinterpreted the situation, given him “my” dumplings that were ready to go, then called me to ask if I was still coming before I knew Sean had already been there and left, and when I told her “will be there soon” had started making another batch. A communication mix-up that could’ve easily been avoided if she’d checked with Sean — or asked me straight out if I’d sent a “foreign student” — before doing anything with the food. (Sean told me later that he had told her “I ordered” not “I want to order” so it wasn’t even a language problem.)

And really, what kind of business would call a regular customer (I’m sure she figured out who were were) and scream at them, and then basically tell them I don’t want your business? Maybe I hadn’t been clear on the phone, but it was she who made the mistake, so why not swallow the loss rather than end the relationship over 32 RMB (which really could be salvaged if she fed the food to someone else)?

Perhaps that — her lack of business and common sense — is the reason half her store got taken over by a fried chicken take-out. Dongbei diner, it was lovely getting dinner with you, but you’ve given me no choice but to look elsewhere for my dumpling fix. I’ve ripped up your delivery menu and deleted your number so I won’t be tempted to call, and won’t be coming ’round to your parts again ’til I’m in love with another.

Bulldozer, come get ’em if you want.

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The obligatory soup noodle post

There’s one of these homemade-Asian-noodle-soup photos in practically every food/cooking blog, it seems, so I might as well add mine now: buckwheat (soba) noodles with plump shiitake mushrooms in homemade stock, drizzled with sesame oil.

To up my vegetable intake for this meal, I fried up some well-salted and -sesamed zucchini ribbons (now my favourite way to eat zucchini :).

There’s something hugely satisfying and — in a land where broth or stock is often another way of saying MSG-water — wonderfully pure about slurping a simple bowl of noodles in stock I’ve made myself.

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Carrefour salad bar, revisited (hold the chicken essence)

The other day, I returned to Carrefour’s Chinese salad bar for the first time after my bad experience with the “chicken essence” seasoning (鸡精) a few months back. This time, hoping for a lighter, MSG-free meal, I told the guy to hold the chicken essence and to go easy on the salt. As he seasoned my salad, his ladle obediently skipped the bowl of yellowish powder.

I came back and dug in, expecting to find it a bit bland. On the contrary: the taste of MSG was overpowering and lingered in my mouth and throat late into the night, as did my disappointment. Very sad to report I won’t be going back for another few months, if again at all.

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Zucchini fettuccine

As part of my hot-weather-inspired aim to replace calorie-dense grains with fresh vegetables (or what is now fashionable to call “slow-carbing”) more often, I made “zucchini fettuccine” on Sunday.

I realized only in recent weeks that some zucchini (西葫芦, xihulu) can be found for quite cheap over here, if you’re willing to give up your notion of them being dark-skinned vegetables. I got 2 of the pale-skinned ones, wrapped in way too much packaging (tray + foam netting around each one + plastic wrap), for 3 RMB at Carrefour. The dark green variety can be found at the Avocado Lady for 3-4 RMB each.

There are several ways to render zucchini into noodle strips, but the only useful tool I had was a vegetable peeler, so that’s what I used, resulting in a fairly wide cut. After peeling off the outer layer, I peeled down the length of the zucchini…

…and stopped when I reached the seed-heavy centre for fear it’d mess with the texture and add too much water. I saved the “cores” of the vegetable for a later meal.

After tossing the strips with some salt, I let them “sweat” for 15 minutes in a colander. Liquid collected in the bowl underneath was discarded.

Some recipes suggested boiling the “noodles”, some suggested frying, some didn’t say to cook them at all. Because the strips were so thin, I decided just to cook them on a pan. I first fried a few cloves of garlic in butter, then added the zucchini, spreading the noodles evenly on the pan. Seasoned with salt and black pepper, then got the noodles out after about 2 minutes.

The sauce was a resurrection of discarded veggies from the previous day’s vegetable stock production: 2 cups of boiled carrots and onions puréed with 2 tbsp canned pasta sauce.

Very orange, but holla at the beta-carotene.

Here’s a shot of the final vegetable-on-vegetable action. Not sure why the sauce in this one looks redder than the one above, but natural lighting ftw.

The zucchini fettuccine was very tasty! While it didn’t quite attain the chewiness of boiled pasta, it had the familiar slurp and a pleasant crunch. If I had boiled it for a minute before putting it on the pan it would’ve softened up much more, but I found the crisp texture refreshing. The garlic, salt, and butter were key to lending it the aroma and flavours of something far more decadent than zucchini. I only used two zucchinis (minus the seeded core) for two people, but we could’ve easily each done with twice — or even thrice — the amount. While it worked well with the sauce as a light, simple dish, it could also be great in a creamier sauce, perhaps with some sautéed button mushrooms?

Aahh, I love pasta. It’s among my favourite carbs and one of those foods I can keep eating and eating as long as it’s in front of me… which drives it easily into the realm of guilty pleasures. So I’m happy to now have a way to make my pasta and eat it too. As much as I want. Heh.

(Oh, and I learned of the existence of mandolines and julienne peelers a few days ago while looking up instructions for noodling zucchini. That must be how restaurants churn out 青椒土豆丝 (green pepper and potato strips) and carrot/cucumber matchsticks for cold dishes like they were nothing! Ahh!!! To think all this time I was trying to achieve those juliennes with a kitchen knife! Mandolines look a bit scary and hard to clean, but I’ll gladly settle for a julienne peeler, which I’m now resolved to acquire at all costs (well… ideally under 25 RMB).)


Zucchini fettuccine

Recipe to come when I’ve tried this out a few more times…

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[Recreate] City Shop’s pumpkin soup

I forget when I had my first pumpkin soup, but it was probably a relatively recent event, as my childhood consisted mainly of Chinese and canned soups (along with the occasional French onion soup at a western restaurant). I do know that my giant crush on it blossomed one day in March when I, a new vegetarian not knowing where to turn during my lunch hour at a new job, tried City Shop’s ¥8 plastic container of bright yellow, creamy sweet goodness. Pumpkin soup and I have rendezvous’ed weekly, or twice-weekly, since then.

And I wanted to bring it home.

After my not-so-gratifying attempt at the simpler carrot soup the other day, I finally decided this weekend to give the real thing a shot. I’d cooked pumpkin once before in Shanghai, and while the peeling and hacking were a bit of a workout, it really wasn’t that huge of a struggle.

Pumpkins are usually associated with the later months of the year, but City Shop has been churning out gallons of delicious pumpkin soup a day for months, so I assumed there must be some growing relatively locally. (I sent them an e-mail months ago inquiring as to the ingredients of their soup, but never received a response…)

As it was a hot day, I opted for the air-conditioned comfort of Trust Mart over the wet market. T-Mart is not known for consistency in their stock — when I was there yesterday, the usual array of Mankattan-brand bread had vanished, and there were no regular sized tomatoes to be found — so I had my fingers crossed as I browsed the produce section. Turns out pumpkins were on sale for ¥1.9/kg (!), which meant I was able to score a whole one for ¥2.6 (0.40 USD!!).

The stock

The pumpkin soup recipes I looked at all called for chicken/vegetable stock. Since I didn’t want to use packaged chicken broth and pre-packaged veggie bouillon is generally unavailable, I’d have to make my own (a first!). I threw celery (ugh), carrot, onion, garlic, dried black mushrooms, salt, soy sauce, herbs, and 2 litres of water into a pot and emerged 1.5 hours later with a potful of vegetable stock, some of which I froze for future use.

The recipes said to discard the veggies, but as it seemed a waste, I kept the onions and carrots, reserving a cup for the pumpkin soup and pureeing the rest with 2 tbsp of leftover canned pasta sauce to use later. (I’ve been slowly weaning us off pasta sauce, seeing as it’s somewhat pricey and fresh veggies are so readily available.)

The pumpkin

Then I got up close and personal with the pumpkin. No lives (or fingers) were lost in the peeling, seeding, and dicing of the little beast; as long as your knife is sufficiently sharp, it really isn’t that much work considering how much vegetable you end up with.

Once the pumpkin was rendered into bite-sized cubes, I fried up some onion in a pot, added the pumpkin, leftover carrots and onion, cumin, and salt, and covered the whole deal with a litre of vegetable stock. Simmered the mixture until the pumpkin was nice and soft, then cooled it under the air conditioner for another half hour (so it wouldn’t melt our crappy blender).

The soup

Once it had cooled slightly, I pureed the pumpkin-broth mixture in three batches, then returned it to the pot, where I added brown sugar and whole milk and gently reheated. I didn’t have ground cinnamon or nutmeg, so had to do without.

Wow. It was delicious — not quite as thick as City Shop’s, but close to it. We had to add a bit more brown sugar and salt to each bowl for a fuller flavour, but the end result was sweet, smooth, creamy, and addictive: Sean, who is not a soup person, had three bowls and couldn’t stop raving. The only thing missing was a crusty loaf of bread.

Was it worth all this time and effort? In short, yes, if only for the satisfaction of having achieved something I’d previously deemed too challenging/bothersome. If I had ready-made veggie stock and a blender not made of flimsy plastic, this would’ve been a much shorter process. At the very least, though, this was cheap: under ¥10 worth of ingredients yielded 6 generous bowls.

The City Shop pumpkin soup will remain a weekly lunch staple for me, but if I’m craving the stuff on a weekend, I’ll be doing this again!

The side dishes

The soup was accompanied by a rather poorly thought out combo of falafel patties and spaghetti with carrot-and-onion-puree pasta sauce.




Pumpkin soup
Most of the recipes I found use canned pumpkin puree, which I thought was a bit of a cop-out (if only to console myself for it not being available here), so this recipe was the closest thing I could find, though I picked up a few ideas from the reviews of this one. The general concept was more or less the same throughout, so here’s my own adaptation (note: measurements are kinda rough):

1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 pumpkin (approx. 1.5 kg), peeled and diced
1 litre vegetable stock (see these recipes)
1 cup vegetables (carrot, onion) leftover from veggie stock (optional)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp salt

3 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cup whole milk

Extra salt and brown sugar to taste

1. Heat oil over medium heat and add onion. Cook for 2 minutes until softened. Add garlic, pumpkin, salt, and cumin and cook for another minute. Add leftover veggies and vegetable stock (use less stock if no extra veggies are added) and bring to a boil.
2. Cover and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes, then let cool slightly and blend in batches. Adjust for consistency while blending (it should be pretty thick); if there is too much liquid, discard or put aside excess.
3. Return to pot and add milk and brown sugar. Reheat gently, stirring until heated through (but not boiling).
4. Taste and season if needed. Enjoy!

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[Recreate] Bellagio’s beans with salted duck egg

Having become an instant fan of Bellagio‘s green beans with salted duck egg and eaten it twice within the last three weeks, I was eager to recreate it at home. A quick search confirmed that the dish was simple enough to make, requiring few ingredients and steps.

I went to Carrefour, picked up a vacuum-sealed salted duck egg (咸蛋, 2.4 RMB) and a pack of organic yardlong beans (豇豆, 9.2 RMB) that looked like what I had at the restaurant.

(A note on some confusing terminology. Most restaurants seem to refer to anything resembling fried string beans as 四季豆 (sijidou), which translates to green/string/French beans, but what I bought was 豇豆 (jiangdou), which is the cowpea or yardlong bean. Check out the difference. I think I prefer the thinner yardlong bean, but the two can be used pretty much interchangeably.)

The organic cowpea beans were almost twice as expensive than the non-organic string beans, but looked a lot better, so I figured what the hell.

The beans were fun to handle but annoying to chop as they were so long. I quickly got tired of trying to cut them into 1cm bits…

I then fried the beans with some garlic, added the duck egg and some salt, and threw in a bit of sweet corn to balance out the flavours. Though beans are usually subjected to deep-frying in Chinese cooking, I hadn’t the heart — or the oil or the wok — to do so. But the result was delicious, salty, crunchy, with none of that squeakiness I hate about some home-cooked beans (that are either not cooked enough, or not cooked with enough oil). It’s a perfect dish to accompany rice, but since it wasn’t too salty it was fine to eat right off the plate (I had some boiled purple sweet potatoes on the side).

I’d never really considered incorporating fresh peas or beans in our home-cooked meals, mostly because having to manually remove the tough “string” of each pod seemed like more work than it was worth. But I’d mistakenly dismissed all fresh beans from my experience with only one or two types (snap peas, I’m lookin at you). These cowpea beans do not require stringing, and apart from their unwieldy length, are pretty much no-fuss. Thanks to Bellagio, I now have a new veggie to work with, woohoo!


Beans with salted duck egg

300g fresh yardlong beans/other long beans, chopped into very short sections, ends removed
1 salted duck egg (ready to eat)
5 cloves garlic, minced
Corn kernels (canned or frozen, optional)
Salt
Oil

1. Heat 3 tbsp oil on medium-heat heat. Add garlic and beans and fry for 3 minutes.
2. Chop up egg into very small pieces. Mix both yolk and white evenly into beans and add salt to taste. Add corn now if applicable, and keep frying until beans are done. Serve with rice.

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