Monday, January 12, 2009

Better than take-out

Chinese food is very simple and healthy. For centuries, the southern Chinese diet mainly consisted of rice and vegetables with just enough meat added to a dish provide a little taste and texture. Getting your full servings of vegetables in a strictly Chinese diet is not a difficult thing to achieve. Since our visit to Ethnic Town resulted in a couple of sacks of Chinese vegetables, I decided to make a Chinese dinner tonight. Chinese food is deceptively simple. All you need are a few staple sauces and some fresh vegetables and a good saute pan. It IS that simple. Don't believe me? I will walk you through a very simple and versatile Chinese meal.

Stewed Pumpkin with Pork Slices
Courtesy of Mom
1 small pork chop, sliced into bite sized pieces. It should yield about a cup of sliced pork.
1 Small, green pumpkin - peeled, de-seeded and diced into one inch pieces
1/2 small onion, thinly sliced
2 tbs canola or corn oil
1 1/2 tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
drizzle of sesame oil
1 1/2 tbs black bean garlic sauce
1 tbs hoisin sauce
1 1/2 cups water

1. Mix the soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil and pork slices in a small bowl. Set aside and let marinade for 15 - 20 minutes.

2. Heat the oil in a deep saute pan or a non-stick pot. Saute the onion slices in the oil at medium-high heat until the onions are fragrant and just starting to soften. When the onions ready, add the pork slices to the pan and saute until the slices start to brown. Take out the browned onions and pork slices and set aside. There's no need to cook the pork all the way through as the pork will finish cooking at the very end of the cooking process.

3. To the hot pot, add the pieces of pumpkin, black bean sauce, and hoisin sauce and saute for about 30 seconds. Add the water to the pot and turn the heat up to high. I say to add about a cup and a half of water, but all you really want is enough water to cover the pumpkin. Scrape the bottom of the pot to de-glaze any of browned bits of pork and onion. Let the pumpkin and water come to a rapid boil and bring the temperature back down to medium-high.

4. Let the pumpkin mixture boil pretty rapidly until the pumpkin is tender. Depending o the pumpkin, it will take about 10 minutes. Once the pumpkin is tender, add the pork slices back into the pumpkin and mix well. The pumpkin sauce should not be dry but it should not be watery either. The water will have reduced a bit and the pumpkin will have thickened the sauce just a little.

5. Depending on the starch content of the pumpkin, the sauce may or may not thicken. If you find the sauce is still too watery, the trick of all Asian mommies is to mix about a teaspoon of cornstarch with about 2 tbs of cold water. Mix the cornstarch and water well and add it to the boiling pumpkin, stirring the pumpkin while you add the slurry. You want to stir the pumpkin as you add the thickener to ensure you don't have a lumpy sauce. Add just enough cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce to the desired consistency.

Confused about the consistency? If the sauce looks like a broth and is very watery, you will need to add the slurry. If the sauce is very dry, lumpy, or thick add a little bit of water to loosen it up. To check for the consistency you're looking for, if you're uncertain, take a spoon and dip it into the sauce. If the sauce coats the spoon, then it's thick enough.

6. Plate up! At home, we eat it family-style so I always plate it up into a big bowl.

Don't eat pork? This dish works equally great with sliced chicken or sliced beef. I'd avoid fish as fish tends to fall apart.

Don't eat meat? Leave it out! It still tastes great.

Can't find my pumpkin? Use a different type of squash. I would recommend butternut squash, kombacha, even sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes are a bit more watery so you'll need less water. It would even work well with starchy root vegetables such as potatoes or taro.

Boiled Chinese Broccoli
1 bunch of Chinese Broccoli (Gai-lan), washed and trimmed
2 tsp sugar
1 - 2 tbs Oyster sauce, or to taste
2 tbs canola or corn oil; you want an oil that is very mild in flavor and has a pretty high smoking point.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the sugar to the boiling water. Add the gai-lan to the boiling water and cook until just tender, about 3 - 5 minutes depending on the amount of gai-lan. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a small saucepan until it shimmers. When the gai-lan is tender, take it out of the boiling water and plate. Drizzle the gai-lan with oyster sauce. Drizzle the hot oil over the gai-lan and oyster sauce. BE CAREFUL. The oil is very hot and will pop and sizzle when it comes in contact with water. I use a spoon and drizzle the oil very gingerly over the vegetable. The hot oil finishes the dish and heats up the oyster sauce.

Gai-lan has a slightly bitter flavor that is very similar to broccoli rabe. The sugar is added to the boiling water to balance out the bitterness of the vegetable. When purchasing gai-lan, look for stalks that look vibrantly green and tender. I also always check the bottom of the stems to make sure there are no holes cracking the stem, indicating a not-so-fresh product. The flowers sprouting at the very top of the vegetables are entirely edible and delicious.

This dinner is great with steamed white rice and it's healthy, to boot! I do hope you try it. Chinese food is a lot easier than the bad Chinese restaurants lead you to believe (and a lot tastier!). When you make this at home you know there's no MSG!

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