Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Minor Frustrations

Aside from the recipe at the end of this post, what I am about to write has nothing to do with China, Taiwan, or Chinese cooking. Instead it deals with one of my greatest pet peeves associated with living in Utah.

It's all about garlic. Or namely, my inability to buy fresh garlic in this state.

You probably can't tell, but in the below picture I have some minced garlic on the cutting board. Then, off to the far right side of the picture, next to my peeler you will see a couple of cloves of seriously sprouted garlic. As a bonus, you also get to see how messy my kitchen often looks when I cook.

Right before I took this picture I had a moment of extreme frustration brought on by the fact that the garlic I had bought a few days earlier had sprouted to such an extreme extent. This is a constant source of frustration for me, hence its high rank on my current list of pet peeves. I realize most people have big issues to deal with. I actually have my own fair share of "big" issues that I am trying to stay on top of. But every single week, when I go to the store, all my other frustrations and pet peeves and annoyances fade to the background because I am once again engaged in a fierce battle to find fresh, unsprouted garlic.

Whenever I am at the grocery store I sift through the whole bin of garlic looking for a head or two that has not already sprouted. I can't think of one time when I have been successful. I have tried every version of a grocery store in the greater Salt Lake City area: the regular grocery stores (i.e. Albertsons and Smiths), the specialty stores (i.e. Liberty Heights Fresh and The Store), and the organic grocers (i.e. Wild Oats). All to no avail. I've paid ridiculously high prices for a head here and there, thinking if I spend more I should be getting fresher garlic, but sadly, all of my efforts (and hard earned coin) have been spent in vain.

Although I'd like to be more of an environmentalist, I can't help but feel that if I am able to get fresh fruit year-round because its grown in Chile, shouldn't I also be able to purchase a head or two of unsprouted, fresh garlic every now and then?

Anyway, I can't think of this dish now without remembering my garlic frustrations. There I was, an hour away from wanting to have 3 finished Chinese dishes on the table for my brother's family, a small supply of seemingly unusable garlic, and no time to run to the store. Having no other choice, I did what I always do. I peeled it, cut the cloves in half, pulled out the sprout, and used the little that was leftover.

My frustrations aside, it worked out just fine. No off flavors and no bitterness. Garlic is a champ that way. It delivers even when it is past its prime (if only I could say the same for myself). Kirk and Anne loved it, and I can't wait to make this again. But still, when I think of that night I can't help but long (lust really) for just one head of unspoiled, fresh garlic.

It would seem however, that if finding fresh garlic is going to be the overriding priority in my life I probably should be making plans to move back to California.

Sichuan Beef (四 川 牛 肉)
Adapted from Simple Chinese Cooking by Kylie Kwong

Couple of Notes:
- The technique I used to cook the meat is the one that Kylie Kwong uses. It definitely gives the beef a different sort of texture, but honestly, I'm not sure that's enough of a reason for the extra fat the meat likely absorbs while being, basically, deep-fried. The next time I make it I'm going to just stir-fry the beef in a little bit of oil. Also, its easier for me to tell when the meat is done if I stir-fry it.
- I actually think you could throw all the sauce ingredients together and brush it on steaks on the grill for a yummy summertime dinner. I'm going to try that sometime soon. Will let you know how it works out...

1 lb. sirloin steak - Actually, as usual, you can use any cut of beef. I just like sirloin.
1 1/2 c. + 1 T. vegetable oil
2-3 large red chiles, thinly sliced. You can take out the seeds and ribs if you want less heat. The quantity also depends on how much heat you like.
1 T. finely minced ginger
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 1/2 T. hoisin sauce
2 t. Sichuan Pepper and Salt (recipe here) - If making this salt is too fussy, you can just use regular salt and pepper
1/2 c. finely sliced scallions
Extra pinch of Sichuan Pepper and Salt

Wrap the meat in plastic wrap and place it in the freezer for approximately 30 minutes or until a little bit firm (this makes it easier to cut the meat into thin strips). Remove the plastic wrap and cut the beef into 1/4" x 1/4" strips.

Heat 1 1/2 c. oil in a saute pan. Add half the beef and stir-fry for one minute. Stir the meat constantly while it is cooking to prevent the strips from sticking together. Line a plate with a couple layers of paper towels. Remove the meat from the pan and let it drain on the plate. Repeat process with remaining meat.

Once the meat is cooked, pour the oil out of the pan and wipe the pan clean. Heat the remaining 1 T. oil in the clean pan over medium heat. Once hot, stir in the chili, ginger, and garlic. Cook for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly to prevent the garlic from burning. Add the hoisin sauce to the pan and stir quickly to combine ingredients. Then add the beef and stir fry for about 30 seconds. Add the Sichuan salt and pepper, stir-frying for an additional 30 seconds. Add the green onions and stir to mix well. Transfer the beef to a serving platter and sprinkle with a little more Sichuan salt and pepper.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

For Toni

Toni was my companion for three months in my second area, Caotun (aka Nantou aka Zhong Xing Xin Chun... for the sister missionaries it was really three areas in one). She was my first, and really only, trainee. She is also the only companion I have stayed friends with post-mission. I had other companions I thought I would stay in touch with, and for a little while I did. But over time we've lost track of each other.

My most memorable moments in Taiwan with Toni, unfortunately, involved numerous bike accidents I was involved in, most of which were my own fault. Toni managed our three months together with nary a scratch, but I somehow found myself in 5 scrape-ups involving my bike. While we were companions I managed to ride (full-speed ahead) into a parked car, into an Elder (who was on his bike at the time, so its not like I ran him down), and (this one at least, not my fault) got taken down by a woman riding a scooter whose billowy jacket got a little too close to my handlebars. As most of my friends can attest, any one of these bike accidents makes a great story, but when Toni does the retelling, the stories get even more entertaining ("Surely Sister Stowell is going to move around that parked car in her path any moment now...")

Since our missions I have introduced Toni to Boston and taken her to my favorite haunts in LA. In turn, she introduced me to the wonders of the Lone Star state, to include horseback riding, an entertaining sound and light show involving a Texas-sized painting of the Day of Pentecost, a rodeo (my first), and even real, live Texas long-horn cattle (very cool in the flesh).

For all of these reasons and more, I feel more than a little guilty that it has taken me, oh, almost 10 years to finally give Toni the below recipe. This is truly authentic Taiwanese home cooking, as attested by the below handwritten recipe, lovingly supplied, per Toni's request, by one of our favorite people in Taiwan, Fan Tai Tai. I ended up with the recipe, I think, because I was supposed to translate it for Toni. I began the translation, as evidenced by my handwritten notes, but I honestly don't think I ever actually gave a translated version to Toni (sorry Toni). So 10 years later, here we are... I have translated and tested the recipe, and am now ready to (finally) share it with Toni, and by extension, all of you. Enjoy.

青椒牛肉 (Beef with Green Peppers)

3 green peppers - cut into thin strips
1 lb. beef - I like using sirloin steak for my stir-fried, but really, you can use whatever sounds good to you
1/2 t. pepper
3 t. corn starch
2 T. wine - I used Chinese cooking rice wine. You can use white wine, or even white wine vinegar if you have that on hand.
Salt - to taste
1-2 T. canola oil

Put the meat in the freezer for about 15-30 minutes. Then take it out and cut it into 1/4" x 1/4" strips. Mix the beef with the pepper, corn starch, and wine.

Add oil to saute pan or wok and heat over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the meat and brown for about one minute. Then add the peppers and salt and reduce heat just a bit. Continue cooking until the meat is cooked through and the peppers are slightly soft, approximately 7-10 minutes.