Tag Archives: vegetables

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

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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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)

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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Stonesoup’s carrot soup

Growing up with a grandmother whose favourite food is soup, I used to have a bowl of it (most often Cantonese slow-cooked soup or fish broth, but occasionally a can of Campbell’s to placate the kids) at every evening meal. When I left for college, of course, that habit died out (save for a month of dieting on Campbell’s 120-calorie chunky soups), and when I came to Shanghai with my boyfriend, soup drinking became an even rarer event, since he is not a fan.

Soup still has a place in my heart, though: tomato shrimp bisque is a family Christmas tradition, and nourishing my body via slow-cooked soup is a must-do when I visit my grandma once a year. When I started my current job, I happily discovered that the City Shop downstairs sells three varieties of hot (well, it’s usually just warm) soup: vegetable (5 RMB), pumpkin (8 RMB), and cream of mushroom (12 RMB). The smooth, sweet, creamy pumpkin soup is nothing short of wonderful, and paired with a whole-wheat roll (2 RMB) and small yogurt (2 RMB) makes for a cheap, delicious lunch.

I’ve been meaning to attempt to make it at home, but pumpkins are heavy, bulky, and a struggle to peel, and I shudder to imagine the buckets of full cream it’d take to achieve the desired consistency. So when I came across Stonesoup’s super simple carrot soup that claims to rival pumpkin soup, I was intrigued. (I’m also always looking for good ways to use carrots, since I only enjoy it raw or when boiled til super soft/tasteless.)

With nothing in the crisper this morning but carrots and onions (yes, I keep my onions in the fridge), today seemed like a good day to dig up the recipe and give it a whirl.

The recipe calls for 2 brown onions, 1 bunch baby carrots, 1 tin tomatoes, dried chili flakes, and soy sauce. I had regular carrots and plain pasta sauce, which would have to do. I threw in a few small cloves of garlic, as one commenter suggested.

After cooking the veggies, tomato sauce, and water until the carrots became soft, I needed to cool the mixture down a little before pouring it in my cheap plastic blender. So I left it under the fan for about 10 minutes.

I then processed it in two batches.

The result was flavourful, and looked pretty, but did not resemble pumpkin soup at all in taste. Even though I only used maybe 3 heaping tbsp of tomato sauce, the acid completely overwhelmed the carrot’s sweetness, and adding sugar didn’t seem to help much. The chili flakes were a mistake that I should’ve seen coming, as I expect a soup of that colour to be soothing and sweet; this was spicy and tart.

Actually, this would have been a fine outcome if I had expected tomato soup — it had a great consistency for being cream-free, and would’ve been satisfying with some crusty bread or as a sauce. In fact, I might use the leftovers (the recipe yielded 4 bowls) with some pasta and see what happens :-)

This is definitely down for a second attempt. Next time, though, I plan to use fresh tomato (tinned is expensive here), cut out the chili, and have some fresh-baked bread at the ready. Will post an adapted recipe if it works out!

Update (2011/07/10): The leftover soup worked wonderfully as an alternative pasta sauce, which I used with penne and some corn niblets. A much more pleasant way of facilitating my carrot intake than mixing pasta with diced carrots, and makes cooking pasta at home even more cost-effective. (This puree does contain a bit of pasta sauce, but I’ll bet it’d work just as well with some fresh, cooked tomato.) Next time I’ll throw in an egg and see if it doesn’t up the creaminess factor.


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Stalk talk: experiments on getting more out of broccoli

Whenever I cook with broccoli, I throw the main stalk away. It used to irk me to have to throw out such a large part of the broccoli that I’d paid for by weight, but this practice soon became second nature. A big bland hunk of hard stalk — impossible to enjoy, as I’d learned in college with my 99c bags of frozen broccoli (which were 99% stalk).

But a bit of recent reading on food waste has made me rethink some of my habits in the kitchen. Cooking a veggie-based meal usually means a trash can full of discarded peels, stalks, tops and ends — not to mention all the packaging the vegetables came in — and it’s been beginning to bother me. So I decided yesterday, as a first step, to incorporate the stalk into my dinner. Sean, who doesn’t care for brocco-stalk either, was out for dinner, so I had room for experimentation.

My inspiration came from a Stonesoup* blog post on ways to “slow-carb” your meals (first time I’d seen the word used as a verb!). First on her list is “cauliflower rice”, but she doesn’t give much detail apart from recommending the use of a food processor, which I don’t have. Also, I had broccoli, not cauliflower, but I decided their stalks are similar enough that I could attempt a “broccoli rice”.

Method #1: Grating

I first peeled off the hard outer layer of the stalk, then grated it like I would a hunk of cheese.

Grating left me with a wet pile of shredded broccoli stalk. I wondered for a second how I would cook it: steam? Fry? Bake? Wait, I don’t have an oven. Steaming would keep it soggy. So I heated up 1tsp olive oil, grabbed a handful of shredded stalk, squeezed the water out of it, and pan-fried it with a sprinkle of salt.

It tasted like cabbage, in a good way, except that perhaps I’d kept too much of the end because there were a couple white, fibrous strands that had to be picked out…

Method #2: Mincing

I minced the thinner, greener stalks with my kitchen knife…

…and cooked it the same way as above.

The result was crunchy, savoury, and quite edible. Mincing was also less work than grating, so I think method #2 wins! Neither really looked or tasted like rice, but I’d be happy to eat these broccoli bits on their own, and at least from now on there’s no more discarding the stalk and grumbling about having paid for it.

I then stir-fried some shimeji mushrooms, leftover lentils, and the florets with some oyster sauce, scrambled two small eggs, and dished it over the broccoli bits. Super flavourful and satisfying — though the satiety likely came more from the lentils than from the broccoli.

A quick google search for “broccoli stalk” while writing this post suggests that broccoli stalk eaters are usually converts, and die-hard ones at that! Check out this list of ways to keep the stalk out of the trash. Sounds like it’s enjoyable raw as well — even less work!

Broccoli, shimeji mushrooms, and lentils on “broccoli rice”

I try to cook with mushrooms as much as I can when Sean’s not around, since he’s not a huge fan. My favourites from the supermarket are the shimeji (姬菇) and enoki (金针菇). I love pairing mushrooms with broccoli!

4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 medium-sized head of broccoli, stalk separated from florets
1 cup shimeji (or other) mushroom, cut into desired size
1/2 cup lentils, cooked (or canned) and drained — more if you’re hungry
Oyster sauce
Pure sesame oil
Black sesame seeds
Olive oil

1. Prepare the broccoli stalk as above (grated/minced and lightly fried and salted). Set aside.
2. Heat 2tsp olive oil in (non-stick) pan. Add garlic, broccoli florets, mushrooms (pat or squeeze dry before adding to pan), lentils, and fry for ~3 minutes. Add oyster sauce to taste and mix well.
3. Remove from heat when veggies are done (I like mine soft). Drizzle with sesame oil, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and serve with an egg and the broccoli bits (or rice for a fuller meal).

Serves 1 as a meal.

*One of my favourite cooking/food blogs. Stonesoup is all about healthy, “minimalist” home cooking with a wealth of refreshingly simple(-sounding) recipes. Although I’m not a huge fan of the blog’s organization/structure, I like her writing style, her drool-inducing photos, and the food habits she stands for: simple ingredients/methods, minimal kitchen tools, use of whole foods to create healthful, quick, mostly vegetarian dishes. Check it out.

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