Articles in Cooking
Can chefs change the way we eat? The Chefs Collaborative is taking a stab at promoting sustainability with a new cookbook of recipes gathered from America’s most notable chef-activists.
Celebrity chefs have a long tradition as tastemakers. It began with Julia Child, the French Chef who influenced Americans’ purchasing decisions about everything from pots and pans to whole chickens. More than 30 years ago another Californian, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, introduced us to mesclun. This baby lettuce mix is now available in every supermarket and served in restaurants across the nation. In today’s television food culture, celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain and David Chang tempt us with their daring and globetrotting to try foods that are ever more exotic. Meanwhile, another group of chefs in America is influencing another, less flashy but significant trend: responsible eating.
These chefs are members of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit devoted to creating a more sustainable food supply. Working in restaurants across the country, they lead by example: celebrating seasonal, locally produced foods on their menus and advocating for farming and fishing communities. For its 20th anniversary, the organization released its first cookbook, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook: Local, Sustainable, Delicious Recipes from America’s Great Chefs.” Few of the 115 chef contributors are celebrities of TV fame. Instead, they are community leaders who are drawing attention to critical food issues by what they choose to put on the plate.
‘Think like a chef’ with Chefs Collaborative Cookbook
The recipes in this seductively photographed cookbook are grouped in four categories — vegetable and fruits, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, and dairy and eggs. While I expected the recipes to be organized seasonally, this approach made page-turning like armchair-traveling through the seasons. Reading through each recipe inspired me to “think like a chef,” considering how each contributor selected ingredients and flavors together with attention to seasonality, yes, but deliciousness, too.
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By Chefs Collaborative and Ellen Jackson
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Another novelty is that this chef-driven book is not cheffy at all. Certainly the glossy pages include luxury ingredients and multiple steps, but this collection is not intended to dazzle or bewilder with culinary alchemy or sleight of hand. Not one to languor on the coffee table, this chef book is enticing, instructive and very approachable.
Take the recipe for turnip soup from Dan Barber. The chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Barber is the role model of the sustainable chef. Dining at his Upstate New York destination restaurant-farm-education center was dubbed “a life-changing experience” by Food and Wine.
Turnip soup: There may be no flash to this pea-green fall soup recipe, but there is more than meets the eye. For one, the ingredient list is a carefully selected assemblage of leeks, parsnips, purple-topped turnips plus uncommon parsley root (for which Barber offers a substitution). There is also attentive cooking technique: “Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables” and a teaching note about how parsnips and turnips will be sweeter if harvested after the first frost. Though summer had not yet arrived, I yearned for fall immediately.
Helpful color-coded sections
While the recipes keep the teaching light and informal, other sections of this book offer more hard-hitting resources for study. Interspersed throughout the book, robin’s-egg blue pages called “Breaking It Down” deliver encyclopedic listings demystifying the myriad labels for beef, poultry, seafood, eggs and more, delivering essential understanding for making purchasing decisions today. Other goldenrod-colored pages offer nuts-and-bolts information on topics ranging from using every part of the vegetable to understanding grain varieties to exploring various fish-catching methods. It raises serious issues without being overbearing.
The strength of this book is the variety, including all the highly regarded chefs it introduced me to who work and cook beyond my region. In a series of moss-colored pages titled “Straight Talk,” I read many of them muse about their essential pantry items, their favorite bean varieties, and how they decide between local or organic, among other topics. These read like conversations with the chefs themselves, and I would have welcomed more of them.
As a whole, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” offers insights into the complex web of decisions involved in cooking responsibly and eating mindfully. Without great fanfare, these tastemakers — the contributors and chefs in the Chefs Collaborative — are notable for leading the way to a more sustainable and exemplary way of eating.
Serves 4 to 6
If you make this soup with turnips and parsnips harvested after the first freeze, it will be noticeably sweeter. When exposed to cold weather, root vegetables convert their starches to sugars to prevent the water in their cell structure from freezing. Their survival tactic is our reward.
Parsley root, also known as Hamburg parsley, is a pungent cross between celery and parsley. If you have trouble finding it, substitute 1 cup of peeled, thinly sliced celery root and an additional 2 tablespoons of parsley leaves.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, cut into ¼-inch dice (about ½ cup)
1 small leek, white part only, finely chopped
2 medium purple-top turnips (about ¾ pound), peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and thinly sliced
1 parsley root, peeled and thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups vegetable stock (homemade or store-bought)
1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
½ cup picked fresh chervil leaves
¼ cup picked pale yellow celery leaves (from the core)
1. Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and leeks, reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly without browning, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the turnips, parsnips, and parsley root and season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine well with the leeks and onions, cover, and continue to cook slowly for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables become very soft. Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables.
3. Add the stock, bring the mixture to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a blender in batches, adding some of the parsley, chervil and celery leaves each time. Make sure each batch is very smooth, then combine and strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve. Chill in an ice bath to preserve the soup’s bright color and fresh flavor. Reheat to serve, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.
Top photo composite: “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” and Dan Barber’s turnip soup. Credits: Courtesy of The Taunton Press
Rice is a staple of the Malaysian diet. You can choose to have rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sadly, this habit has contributed to rising obesity cases in the country, according to the Malaysian Ministry of Health. But we Malaysians do love our rice.
One quintessential rice dish considered our darling, pride and joy is the humble nasi lemak.
“Nasi” (pronounced nah-see) in Malay means rice, and “lemak” (pronounced luh-mahk) is translated in the cooking context to mean enriched. In this case, it is enriched with coconut milk. In any other sense, “lemak” means fat. But to directly translate nasi lemak as “fat rice” would be linguistically wrong, gastronomically speaking.
Even expats living in Malaysia, in the west peninsular particularly, are more or less familiar with this rich, decadent dish, which is a staple in most local restaurants. It is hard not to love a nice, warm plate of nasi lemak. It would be like being in Italy and not having pizza or pasta.
Two important elements make up this dish: the rice, which is cooked in coconut milk with little shreds of ginger and lemongrass as well as screwpine (pandan in Malay) leaf thrown in for added fragrance, and the spicy sambal, a chili-based sauce that has either fried anchovies (ikan bilis in Malay) or prawns in it. As many would say, it’s all in the sauce, and this one packs a punch. The other essential condiments usually found in nasi lemak are sliced cucumbers, half a hard-boiled egg and roasted ground nuts. Nowadays, many variations of accompaniments are served with the dish, such as chicken, beef or prawn curry and even fried chicken.
The traditional way of packing nasi lemak is to wrap it in a banana tree leaf, as the leaf gives added fragrance. It is still sold as such throughout Peninsular Malaysia, but restaurants serve up a “modernized” version on a plate with all the trimmings.
One Australian expat I interviewed last year, Hugh Ujhazy, had this to say: “People think it’s a dollar’s worth of rice in a brown paper packet. For me, the rice and sambal has to be just right. I love it with coarse-cut onions, chili, ginger and garlic. The side of fried anchovies is also essential. I have yet to find the perfect nasi lemak,” he enthused.
Origins of nasi lemak remain unknown
Be it that we Malaysians have long claimed nasi lemak to be ours, the truth is no one really knows where it originates from because the practice of using coconut milk in rice is also common in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and India. While driving to work one day, I was lucky to catch an interview with a Malaysian heritage historian — a man named Najib Ariffin — on one of our radio channels, who happened to talk about the origins of the famous nasi lemak.
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Ariffin studies ethnic origins and relationships between cultures, focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. He said he has yet to come across any conclusive evidence on the origin of this dish. There is even a folklore story set in the historic state of Malacca (a couple of hours south of Kuala Lumpur) about a young village girl who, while helping her mother cook, accidentally spilled a cup of coconut milk in a pot of rice, much to the chagrin of her mother, who ended up actually liking the taste, hence the birth of nasi lemak.
The fact that Malaysia is a melting pot of different races — including Malays, Chinese and Indians — translates into our cuisine as well. “Malacca has its own Chinese version of nasi lemak which is judged on how they cook the sambal. Some like it a tad sweeter and some don’t,” he explains.
Some clues show nasi lemak, which is often consumed as a big breakfast meal, originated in the west coast of Malaysia, he said. The east coast, which is the most culturally conservative part of the country, has its own signature traditional rice dishes with prominent, distinct fish flavors. “The nasi lemak has not changed their fondness for their local dishes. It just adds on to the variety of rice dishes available there,” Ariffin added.
He goes on to say that back in the day, in an agrarian society, his grandparents would consume a healthy serving of nasi lemak for breakfast before heading out to the fields. “They really worked up a sweat as farmers so they needed a hearty meal in the morning. Eating nasi lemak kept them full because you have all the food groups covered — carbohydrates from the rice, oils from the sambal and protein from the anchovies.”
It is a pity nothing was recorded on paper back then. “I scoured old books, articles, libraries and even talked to some friends of my grandparents to find out about stories they heard. Let’s just say all the anecdotes died with them,” he concluded.
I love indulging in a hot packet of nasi lemak, but the best is always cooked by my own mother. She has graciously shared her recipe.
This recipe can be made in a rice cooker or stock pot. Make sure you simmer the rice on medium to low heat until cooked. You can cook the dish in your own kitchen, but you may need to substitute some ingredients if you can’t locate them in your area. Some Asian grocery stores might have them in stock.
2 cups white rice, rinsed and drained
2 ½ to 3 cups coconut milk, depending on your desired thickness
2 tablespoons cooking oil (to prevent rice from sticking)
One screwpine (pandan) leaf, or substitute with three bay leaves
1 stick of lemongrass, smashed
Pinch of salt to taste
2 tablespoons of fresh ginger, julienned
1. Wash the rice in a colander or pasta strainer until the water runs clear. Set aside.
2. In a rice cooker or pot, heat the oil on slow fire and add the coconut milk, lemongrass, leaves and salt. Add the rice.
3. When the rice is half cooked, add the ginger and close the lid until it is fully cooked.
This recipe calls for dried anchovies, which can be found in most Asian stores. If unavailable, medium-sized fresh prawns can be used.
2 cups dried chilies, seeded and soaked in water, boiled and blended (If unavailable, these can be replaced with 3 tablespoons of sweet paprika or cayenne pepper)
1 stick of lemongrass, smashed
4 tablespoon cooking oil
1 cup of shallots, ginger and garlic, puréed
2 tablespoons tamarind juice, plus enough water to make ½ cup (This can be substituted with 2 tablespoons of lime juice.)
3 cups of dried anchovies, washed, drained, dried and fried (If you are using fresh prawns, use the same measurement and wash and peel off the veins.)
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
1. In a stock pot, heat oil over medium heat and add the lemongrass for two minutes.
2. Add the chili mix and stir until fragrant, followed by the shallots, ginger and garlic mix. Sweat it for about three minutes.
3. Mix in the tamarind or lime juice and simmer until everything is fragrant.
4. Toss in the anchovies or prawns and simmer until they are well coated or until the prawns are cooked, about 5 to 7 minutes.
5. Add the salt and sugar according to your preference.
Top photo: Nasi lemak. Credit: Aida Ahmad
Upon receiving an e-mail out of the blue last week from a filmmaker asking me whether I’d like to screen his latest production, I half wondered whether he’d meant to send it to my significant other, who just so happens to be the artistic director of a film festival here in Denver. Yes, “Trubadeaux: A Restaurant Movie” is about the hospitality industry, and yes, I’ve written an article or two about food on the silver screen. As a grad student in English many years ago, I even taught a couple of classes on the relationship between film and literature. But none of that makes me a professional reviewer.
Still, living with a programmer does mean I wind up watching dozens upon dozens of movies by unknown hopefuls every year — enough to get a sense of what’s worth my time and what isn’t in all of 15 minutes. So despite a bit of skepticism, I figured I had no more than a quarter-hour to lose.
Long story short: I not only watched and enjoyed the whole thing — as you can do on the filmmakers’ website for $5 — but even laughed out loud now and then. As it turns out, this slightly blue, slightly black shoestring comedy about a few days in the lives of a fictional Chicago eatery’s staff of misfits was written, directed, produced and performed by a team with both improv and service backgrounds. And it shows in every last silly, sad-sack detail — from the deadpan exchanges with snobby customers who insist that, say, Sicily isn’t in Italy to the screaming matches in pre-service meetings to the awkward kiss-and-tells of fellow employees. (Shooting took place on location at Edgewater Beach Café.)
“Trubadeaux” stars have restaurant chops
In fact, Group Mind Films managing partner John Berka — who co-created “Trubadeaux” and stars as pitifully piggish general manager Lyle — is in the business even today: “I started at age 15 at Applebee’s, and I’m currently a private-dining manager at the James Beard Award-winning Blackbird. I have done just about everything in the industry — except work as a GM! The one I play in the film is based on a few I’ve known here in Chicago.” Co-star Todd Wojcik — who plays Lyle’s brother, the head chef — likewise based his character on real-life ex-colleagues: “Todd has a ton of restaurant experience,” explains Berka. “We actually wrote a lot of the film while working together in a Rush Street restaurant.”
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That scripting process, he adds, unfolded “very organically.” “Todd and I would meet for our weekly writing sessions and wind up talking about what had happened the night before on the job,” Berka recalls. “My business partner, Jay Sukow, stopped us one day and said, ‘Guys, this is the film.’ From there, we started making a list of all of the weird things that have happened to us working in the industry. Everything was a collaboration inspired by real events, brought to life with the ‘yes, and’ mentality that’s the pillar of improvisation. For instance, the scene about the water main breaking over the sugar supply is one that every restaurant person loves. That was entirely improvised.”
Meanwhile, the supporting cast brought their own experiences to bear on the script: “Duane Toyloy (who plays Jackson) is a very strong server. We wrote his part around his serving ability, while Jyo Minekowa (Blair) is not the best waiter, but has a great personality. Jyo sued one of our former employers; we incorporated that into the scene at the bar where he talks about how Lyle and the chef are stealing tips. And the letter Lyle reads to the staff” — a tirade on lackluster service — “was based largely off a real letter received at a restaurant that both Jyo and I worked at. Rafa the dishwasher (Juan Palomino) is also a local industry veteran; he’s from Puebla, Mexico, and he came up with the idea for his character himself.”
Ultimately, says Berka, the goal “for me, as a longtime waiter, was to show people what waiters go through. The dynamics of a high-stress environment populated by out-of-control egos fuels the natural humor in restaurants” — and also the misery, he admits. “One of the themes of ‘Trubadeaux’ is addiction. Addiction is one of the constants in this life. I don’t think people have a real sense of everything that goes into working in a restaurant. We wanted to show people what happens when no guests are around. That’s the most compelling aspect.”
For other worthy food-and-drink-fueled movies — both narrative and documentary, many lesser known — click this film list. I also heartily recommend the charming “I Like Killing Flies,” a slice-of-life look at New York City’s notorious Shopsin’s; “Blood Into Wine,” featuring Tool frontman-turned-winemaker Maynard James Keenan; and “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” a gorgeously detailed account of menu creation under the legendary Ferran Adrià.
Top photo: Todd Wojcik (left) and John Berka star in “Trubadeaux.” Credit: Jason Beaumont
On the way back from the farmers market, I was feeling pretty proud of myself because I had scored five pounds of a local and legendary spring asparagus. Asparagus might be available all year long, but spring asparagus is altogether different from the flavorless, bitter or woody spears sold in the produce department regardless of season.
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I follow a few simple rules to honor this edible. First, it springs from the ground with a sense of urgency, so don’t waste a minute putting it to good use. Second, the best-flavored stalks need little attention and even less embellishment. Dicing it up and adding it raw to salads may be your best new secret ingredient. Third, peeling the tough, outer skin near the base allows you to make greater use of the whole stalk and speeds cooking time immensely. Blanching will likely take one minute, not more than two. Finally, ingredients that reach their peak during the same season are natural siblings even if they come from different families. Asparagus deserves to be partnered with spring onions, new mushrooms, field leeks and the like. My latest pairing, roasted asparagus garnished with lilac flowers, was such an arranged marriage.
Roasted Spring Asparagus With Lilacs and Lemons
1 pound fresh asparagus spears
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt or lavender salt, to taste
Herbes de Provence, to taste
Juice of one lemon, freshly squeezed
Lemons, thinly sliced
1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper.
2. Trim rough ends of asparagus stalks and peel lower halves.
3. Arrange asparagus in one even layer on pan. Drizzle with olive oil to coat and sprinkle lightly with salt and herbs.
4. Roast for 8 to 12 minutes, being mindful to test doneness. Depending on the freshness of your produce, the asparagus may be done surprisingly quickly.
5. Sprinkle with lemon juice. Garnish with lilac blossoms and lemon slices. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Top photo: Spring asparagus with lilacs and lemons. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
I’ve been a little stuck in the kitchen lately. It’s a funny time of year here in southern Maine. The garden is almost planted and, at best, producing young pea shoots, chives and a few tiny salad greens. The garlic, planted last fall, is tall and majestic, promising a great yield. But at this point, it’s all a tease.
Memorial Day weekend felt more like Columbus Day. Sheets of cold rain, howling winds and a chill in the air forced us to stoke late May fires. But on Sunday morning the sun peeked out, so I got on my boots and flannel shirt and headed outside. While I was weeding around the peas, I noticed a patch of tall, healthy greens I couldn’t identify. Planted in the corner of the garden they looked a little like a cluster of early, self-seeded sunflowers.
Suddenly, a memory.
My friend Karen visited late last spring and brought me a bunch of Jerusalem artichoke plants. I must have told her to put them in the corner of the garden. (I put everything in the corner until I can figure out if I like a plant. If I do, then I find a more permanent home for it.) The small cluster she brought had quadrupled over the winter. More important, it had survived the winter.
Jerusalem artichokes add to spring’s garden bounty
I’ve never grown Jerusalem artichokes, but Karen had mentioned they’re like a weed, capable of multiplying like crazy. I recalled that Jerusalem artichokes are an early-spring crop. I decided to take a chance and dig a few up.
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I was so excited that I put the artichoke directly in my mouth, not even wiping off the heavy blanket of wet, granular soil that clung to it. I felt the crunch of the raw artichoke. A sweet juice emerged that tasted like a spring tonic. And there was most definitely an artichoke-like flavor, but this “artichoke” was all about the nutty, crunchy, water-chestnut-like texture of the tuber.
Jerusalem artichokes, also called sun chokes, are not from Jerusalem and are a distant cousin to regular artichokes. According to Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison in her stunning new book “Vegetable Literacy“ (Ten Speed Press, 2013), “Artichokes are thistles; Jerusalem artichokes are the tuber of a sunflower.” That explained my mistaking the plant for a sunflower.
“Knobby and looking a bit like fresh ginger, Jerusalem artichokes taste nutty and sweet, earthy and clean — a very pleasant complex of qualities, indeed. They are not starchy like a potato, and the presence of inulin gives them a pleasant mouthfeel. They are a good source of calcium, iron, phosphorous, potassium, vitamin C …” Madison goes on to list their attributes, making one feel like a fool for not having eaten these things every day for maximum health.
Jerusalem artichokes don’t need much preparation. Give them a little squeeze and make sure they are firm and not soft or mushy. You can rinse them under cold water and remove the peel if you like, but when they’re young and just pulled from the garden the peel is perfectly digestible. (Madison does point out there are some who consider Jerusalem artichokes hard to digest, “hence giving them their unpleasant nickname, ‘fartichokes.’ “)
Jerusalem artichokes are delicious eaten raw, shaved or thinly sliced into salads, or as a garnish for soups and stews.
They can be sliced and sautéed in olive oil, added to pasta sauces, cooked and puréed and served as a dip or spread for crostini. Being tubers, they can also be cooked like potatoes — roasted or steamed and mashed with a knob of butter, or thinly sliced into a gratin.
I dug up dozens of Jerusalem artichokes, screaming to my husband like an importunate toddler. (“Come see! Come see what I’ve found!”) I noticed a few leeks that had wintered over in the garden and had several spring parsnips, so I decided to make a soup. I’ve had luscious, Italian-style soups made from artichokes and figured these chokes would make a perfectly acceptable substitute.
I sautéed the leeks slowly, not letting them brown, added the chopped artichokes and the parsnips, and finally some stock. While it simmered, I went back out to the garden and discovered a patch of wild sorrel in the yard, a tart and lemony green herb that is abundant in the fields around our old farmhouse. The sorrel puréed with olive oil, sea salt and freshly cracked pepper made a tart, green topping for the rich, sweet, puréed Jerusalem artichoke soup.
An unexpected discovery in my own garden led to a new recipe. An unexpected gift from a friend led to a new spring favorite, making this in-between season so much sweeter.
Spring Jerusalem Artichoke and Parsnip Soup With a Sorrel Swirl
Serves 4 to 6
If you peel the Jerusalem artichokes, you might want to place them in a bowl of cold water with half a lemon squeezed in so they don’t oxidize and begin to brown. This soup has no cream or dairy, but it tastes quite creamy. You can add a dollop of cream, crème fraîche, yogurt or sour cream, but you really don’t need it.
For the soup:
1½ tablespoons olive oil
3 leeks, ends trimmed, dark greens sections trimmed, and white bulb cut lengthwise and cleaned, and then cut into 1-inch pieces
9 ounces of Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), peeled or not, and cut into 1-inch pieces
9 ounces parsnips, peeled an cut into 1-inch pieces
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
About 1 cup crème fraîche, sour cream, heavy cream or plain yogurt, optional topping
For the Sorrel Swirl:
1 cup fresh sorrel
½ cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the soup:
1. In a large soup pot, add the oil over low heat. Add the leeks and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Do not let the leeks brown.
2. Add the artichokes and parsnips and cook, stirring for 2 minutes.
3. Add the garlic, salt, and pepper and cook another 2 minutes.
4. Raise the heat to high, add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and let cook about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender when tested with a small, sharp knife.
5. Let cool slightly and purée in a food processor, blender or using an immersion blender.
6. Taste for seasoning. The soup should be fairly thick; if it is too thin, simmer it over low heat uncovered to thicken slightly.
For the sorrel swirl:
1. Place the sorrel and oil in a food processor or blender and purée. It won’t be smooth. Season to taste. The sorrel swirl will keep in a jar refrigerated for several days.
2. Serve hot with a spoonful of the sorrel swirl and/or a dollop of crème fraîche, etc.
Top photo: Spring Jerusalem artichoke and parsnip soup with a sorrel swirl. Credit: Kathy Gunst
Potstickers have become commonplace at Asian and fusion restaurants in the States, but most patrons of such establishments have no idea that the dumplings they’re scarfing down are pale shadows of the little masterpieces made in places like Tianjin.
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A city on the Bohai Sea, Tianjin serves as Beijing’s seaport. Cooks in this seaport do fantastic spins on northern Chinese foods, borrowing many ideas from such sources as its large Muslim population and turning them into delicacies like these filled pasta that are beloved by China’s cognoscenti.
Potstickers in Tianjin are amazingly good partially because the ethereally light wrappers are handmade and also because the filling is so juicy and flavorful that only a touch of dipping sauce is needed. Contrast this with the potstickers served up in most Chinese joints outside of China, which are usually little more than previously frozen pork dumplings with boring fillings and leaden skins. These commercially made things have little to recommend them, and I avoid them like the plague.
Once you’ve eaten handmade guotie (or wor tip as they’re called in Cantonese), you will fall in love, too, with thin pasta that melts in your mouth, acting as little more than a gossamer hankie on three sides for the juicy, flavor-packed pork hiding within. But, as with all great potstickers, the greatest draw are its bottoms crusted a golden crunchy brown.
In China, potstickers are long and thin, with both ends open so that the juices can run out and join in forming the crispy crust. These are perfect either for breakfast with a hot bowl of congee, or as an afternoon snack, or as part of a dim sum feast. They even can be made ahead of time up to the last step, which means they are great for entertaining.
You may have noticed that these are called “lacy.” That is because there is one other thing that sends these potstickers into the culinary stratosphere: a crispy filigree surrounds them, making them look magical and even more enticing than you probably thought possible.
Lacy potstickers — 冰花鍋貼 Bīnghuā guōtiē
Makes 24 potstickers and serves about 4
For the wrappers:
2 cups regular Korean flour or all-purpose flour (see Tips)
½ teaspoon sea salt
4 teaspoons rendered lard or shortening
½ cup boiling filtered water
Extra flour for rolling out the dough
Small bowl of cool filtered water
For the filling:
1 pound ground pork (30% fat recommended), preferably a heritage breed such as Berkshire
1 teaspoon Chinese mushroom seasoning or sea salt (see Tips)
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 green onion, trimmed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons peeled fresh minced ginger
For the lace:
1½ tablespoons flour
1½ tablespoons wheat starch (see Tips)
¾ cup cool filtered water
¾ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil for frying
1. First, make the wrappers: Pour the flour into a medium work bowl and toss in the salt. Cut up the lard and toss it with the flour. Pour all of the boiling water into the flour mixture and mix with chopsticks until the dough becomes flaky. Use your hand to knead the now cooler dough inside the bowl until it sticks together, and then turn it out on a flat surface. Knead the dough without adding any more flour; it will take about 5 minutes to form a smooth, gentle dough. Place the ball of dough in a clean plastic bag and let it rest for at least 15 minutes to relax the gluten.
2. Turn the pork out onto a clean chopping board and use a heavy cleaver or knife to chop it until it is fine and a bit sticky; turn the meat over every once in a while and fold it in on itself so that every morsel gets whacked completely. Place the meat in a medium work bowl and add the rest of the filling ingredients. Use your hand to stir them around in one direction to fully incorporate them, and then pick the meat up and slam it back into the bowl around 10 times to make the meat bouncy and resilient. Divide the filling into 24 pieces and roll these into small balls or cylindrical shapes.
3. Mix together the lace ingredients until smooth and then pour them through a fine sieve into a measuring cup.
4. Shape the rested dough — it should be as soft as an earlobe — into a rope 24 inches long and cut the rope into 24 one-inch pieces. Roll each piece into a small ball and dust it lightly with some flour. Cover the balls with a clean tea towel as you go. Working on one piece at a time, flatten a ball on a lightly floured board with your palm to form an even circle about 2 inches in diameter. Then (if you are right-handed), hold this circle near the center between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand while you wield a Chinese rolling pin (which is like an inch-thick, 12-inch dowel) with your right hand. Roll the circle out gently and evenly, pressing down in the center of the circle with the rolling pin and rolling in and out 2 times before turning the dough 45 degrees. Keep rolling and turning the dough this way to form a circle 5 inches in diameter. The wrapper should be smooth, elastic, and even. Lightly dust it with some flour and cover it with the towel. Repeat with the rest of the dough until you have 24 wrappers.
5. Now, wrap the potstickers one at a time by placing a wrapper flat on your left hand while smearing one of the meatballs down the center to form an even layer of meat about ¾ of an inch wide. Wet the edges of the wrapper with some cool water and pinch the edges together, leaving a ¾-inch opening at both ends. Lightly crimp the edges in a wavy pattern, if you like. Cover the filled potsticker with a tea towel and repeat with the rest of the wrappers and filling until all are filled. (The potstickers can be frozen at this point in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap. Place them in a freezer bag once they are hard. They can be used without defrosting — either steamed as directed in Step 6 or pan-fried as in the directions below for regular potstickers.)
6. Prepare a two-layer bamboo or (preferably) stainless steel steamer by spraying the bottom with oil and bring the water underneath it to a boil. Place the potstickers inside the steamer baskets so that they do not touch each other and steam the potstickers until done, about 7 minutes. Remove the potstickers from the steamer. (The potstickers can be prepared ahead of time up to this point and then reheated in Step 7 right before serving.)
7. Fry the potstickers just before serving: Heat a flat-bottomed frying pan (preferably nonstick) over medium heat until the edges of the pan are very hot. Depending upon the size of the pan, pour in some oil (about 1½ tablespoons per potsticker) and swirl it around. Arrange as many potstickers in the pan as will fit without squeezing, but they should touch each other. Then, pour the lace batter (about ½ tablespoon per potsticker) into the pan; immediately start swirling the pan around nonstop so that the batter forms a thin layer all around and between the potstickers. Once the lace has formed, loosen the edges of the lace with a thin spatula and turn the potstickers out upside-down onto a serving plate. Repeat with the rest of the potstickers, oil, and batter until done. Serve immediately with a dipping sauce of your choice (see Tips).
Regular potstickers: You can make regular potstickers easily with this recipe: just omit the lace and the steaming. Instead, pour some oil (about 1½ tablespoons per potsticker) into a hot, flat frying pan sitting over medium heat. Arrange as many potstickers in the pan as will fit without squeezing, but they should touch each other. Then, pour filtered water (again, about 1½ tablespoons per potsticker) into the pan and immediately cover it with a tight-fitting lid. Fry-steam the potstickers for around 5 minutes, or until you can hear by the popping oil that the water has been absorbed. Remove the lid and continue to fry the potstickers until their bottoms are a golden, crispy brown. Loosen them with a thin spatula and turn them out onto a serving plate with the brown bottoms on top. Serve hot.
– Regular Korean flour works best here, as it has the right amount of gluten to make soft, supple wrappers with good texture.
– Wheat starch is available in Chinese grocery stores in the flour aisle under the name 澄粉chéngfěn.
– Mushroom powder is optional, but it adds a nice layer of seasoning.
– I buy organic white shortening by Spectrum that is non-hydrogenated, and so much healthier. It’s a good substitute for lard because it doesn’t taste of butter.
Top photo: Lacy Tianjin potstickers. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
I don’t think of myself as having a mania for amassing stuff, especially when I compare myself to those hoarders depicted on television reality shows, people who can’t get near their stoves or their bathtubs because of the menacing mountains of clutter that obstruct any approach. But while I may not be a hoarder — someone who collects absolutely everything in a pathological way — I am a serious collector of recipes. This recipe-collecting quirk of mine may seem to some to have gotten a little out of hand.
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To start with, I have a large and growing collection of cookbooks that are neatly arranged in bookshelves all over the three floors of my house. I also subscribe to food magazines that I can never bring myself to discard, even after reading them, for I have put Post-its on all the recipes I hope someday to try. Then I routinely read several newspapers, all of which publish recipes, and I clip and save the ones I like. I also check out cookbooks from my public library and photocopy recipes that look good to me. While reason tells me that I will never be able to cook all of the dishes whose recipes I have gathered, the thought of discarding any part of my recipe collection seems to me out of the question. And I know I am not alone.
Where have all the Gourmets gone?
When I was a professional collector of cookbooks, working in a library with a specialty in food history, I would often hear from people wanting to donate their collections of Gourmet magazine to a respectable institution to be preserved for posterity. These offers usually came up when people were moving into smaller quarters and no longer had room for old copies of the magazines. The would-be donors generally had around 20 years worth of Gourmet. This was a reflection of the owner’s peak cooking years, and not a whole set. But because my library already owned two complete and bound sets of Gourmet, I had to turn down these offers much to the dismay of the would-be donors. Parting with the magazines was hard enough, but the thought of dumping their collection into a paper recycling bin was impossible to face. To give them solace, I let them know that they were not alone in their attachment to the magazine, and would describe to them a New Yorker cartoon I had once seen that captured their concern. It shows a woman dressed in mourning speaking to a lawyer who says, “That being your mother’s wish, I see no reason we can’t arrange interment with all her old copies of Gourmet.”
Such fidelity strikes me as ever so human. Those old magazines were filled not only with enticing recipes, but articles about trips to exotic places and what to eat once you got there. By discarding their Gourmets, people were effectively giving up the dream of finally cooking all of those dishes and going to all of those wonderful places, and who wants to give up such a dream?
Recipe collecting in the Internet age
Nowadays, however, this need to cling to cookbooks, food magazines and newspaper clippings does not grip everyone interested in recipes. The ease of finding recipes on the Internet has caused some people to discard all of their paper sources because they know they can easily find virtually any dish they want online. I too search online for dishes, but this does not reduce my paper collection, for I immediately print newfound recipes and add them to my already bulging files. In any case, I find that online recipes are no substitute for cookbooks, the best of which are more than just batches of recipes. Like other good books, they have a voice, an author passing on wisdom and knowledge for the benefit of readers. To my mind, the best cookbooks should be read straight through before donning one’s apron and heading for the kitchen.
After scrutinizing my behavior, I have finally decided to accept the fact that I am a collector. Unlike hoarders, I do not find meaning and value in absolutely every material object that comes my way, but I sure do find meaning and value in recipes. Some people collect porcelain figurines of dogs, while others are on the lookout for antique toys or snuff boxes. The objects of our passions differ, but we collectors are all alike in that we love the thrill of the hunt, and find that discovering a new addition to our collection can be as much fun as having and keeping it. In my case, I keep my favorite recipes — newspaper clippings, printouts and handwritten jottings — in a shabby green folder in my kitchen, and am reminded that each of those recipes came from a different source. If I hadn’t tracked them down, saved them and cooked from them, I am sure that the pleasures of my family table would have been diminished.
Top photo: A cook’s recipe collection. Credit: Barbara Haber
I’ve often thought of peanut butter as the American tahini because they’re both oily seeds ground to a paste. The resemblance between peanut butter and tahini used to be even more marked in the 1950s before homogenized peanut butter was invented, because in those days you had to stir up your peanut butter just about every time you opened the jar, as you have to do with tahini today.
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The aromas are certainly different, with peanut butter being toasty and a little funky, while tahini is redolent not only of sesame seed but of something faintly vegetal. But they’re often treated much the same, except that nobody makes tahini-jelly sandwiches because tahini is much too liquid.
Specifically, there’s a certain similarity between hummus, the chickpea dip that has conquered the world in the last 50 years, and the peanut sauce that goes on the Indonesian cooked-vegetable salad gado-gado. The gado-gado sauce, or bumbu as it is called in Bahasa, Indonesia, has a lot more ingredients than tahini has. For instance, you can put in shallots, spices, coconut cream and fermented shrimp paste in gado-gado, but both sauces typically contain garlic and lemon juice.
Peanut butter and tahini trade places
So I decided to switch the ingredients. Hummus was, of course, invented with tahini in mind, and ditto with gado-gado. I decided to spruce up the substitute versions with a pinch of cumin in one, and turmeric in the other, even though I’m generally anti-cumin when it comes to hummus. They worked quite well, especially the hummus with peanut butter.
Serves 3 to 4
1 pound mixed vegetables such as carrots, peppers, new potatoes, green beans, cabbage leaves
Oil for frying
½ cup tahini, mixed smooth
1 clove garlic, squeezed or grated
1 teaspoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground red pepper or hot paprika
1 cup water
Salt to taste
¼ teaspoon turmeric, optional
Juice of ½ lemon
1. Steam or grill the vegetables.
2. Cut the onion in half width-wise and cut half into rings and the rest into small dice. Fry in oil until golden brown. Separate the rings from the dice, and drain on paper towels separately.
3. Put the tahini in a small frying pan and add the garlic, brown sugar, red pepper and fried diced onions. Stir together and gradually stir in the water. Bring to a boil, and boil over medium heat until thick. Stir in salt and optional turmeric.
4. Arrange the vegetables on a serving plate. Stir the lemon juice into the sauce and dress the vegetables with the sauce. You will have sauce left over, which you can serve separately at the table.
Hummus With Peanut Butter
Makes 3 to 4 servings
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas
Juice of 3 lemons, or to taste
1 to 2 cloves garlic, pressed or grated
3 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
Salt to taste
Cumin to taste, optional
1. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and put in a food processor with the lemon juice and garlic. Purée for about 1 minute.
2. Add the peanut butter and purée until smooth.
3. Season with salt and optional cumin to taste.
Top photo: Tahini gado-gado and hummus with peanut butter. Credit: Charles Perry