Monday, December 1, 2008
Cooking In When You Can't Eat Out
I have always loved Chinese food. Well, let me clarify. I have always loved good Chinese food. I am not a fan of the heavily fried chicken coated in layers of overly-sweetened gloppy sauce. This doesn't mean I am a snob looking for a fancy restaurant. If anything, I prefer the hole-in-the-wall authentic type of place. So, before children, and even occasionally since, my husband and I would head down to Chinatown, spend a while looking for parking and then indulge in tremendous amounts of food, bringing home the extras in boxes to eat for a few days.
Having young children has made the venture more challenging for 2 main reasons: the drive is too long and, the more somber reality: Raphael's peanut allergy makes it virtually impossible for us to eat at Chinese (or Thai or Vietnamese) restaurants with him.
We feel incredibly lucky to have discovered 2 of our favorite restaurants in our backyard: Sichuan Gourmet and E.O. Noodle in Framingham. For the most part this means that my husband and I can indulge in lunch together while I am on maternity leave or we can take out, using paper plates and plastic utensils to prevent R. from having any contact with peanuts.
But the future is more complicated: I don't want to dangle delicious foods in front of my son while insisting that he can't eat them! So, I anticipate that if his allergy lasts, I will turn to cooking my own Chinese food on a more frequent basis, trying to adapt recipes to meet his needs (no peanuts), that of my husband (who doesn't eat pork or like spicy foods) and my own (I don't fry foods to save a few calories for dessert!)
The reality is that I not only enjoy cooking Chinese food, but I enjoy the pleasure of learning about China, Chinese history and Chinese cuisine. Three of my favorite books on Chinese food have all been by Fuschia Dunlop. She was one of the first non-Chinese to be allowed to train at a cooking institute in Sichuan and has spent significant time studying Chinese cooking. Her biography, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper is fascinating in learning about the transformation of China in the 1990s and the complexity of Chinese cooking. However, her book on Sichuan cookery, Land of Plenty, is just fantastic. She teaches about China, Sichuan and Sichuanese cooking. She addresses topics from how to cut vegetables to how the Chinese appreciate the texture of ingredients. In addition, her recipes are wonderful. They do require a trip to the Super 88 or CMart, but once you have the ingredients on hand, they are easily doable. However, as they are authentic, they rely heavily on pork, frying and spicy peppers. Unfortunately, then, by the time I have adapted the recipes to meet all of our needs, they lose a significant amount of the essence of the recipe.
So, for most of my Chinese cooking, I have been turning instead to Nina Simonds. She has written a number of books on Chinese cooking, often with the goal of making it not only simple, but healthy. Her recipes are light on oil, most of the ingredients are easily attainable at any grocery store and while flavorful, they can be put together in a reasonable amount of time.
Recently I created an adaptation of Simonds' Tofu-Noodle Salad with Spicy Peanut Sauce in her book China Express. The list of ingredients for the sauce may look long, but once you have them in the house, you will want to make this over and over. In addition, most of the ingredients (e.g. rice wine) are staples for good Chinese and Japanese cooking. Finally, I altered this so Raphael could still eat it by substituting sunflower butter for the peanut butter (which, for the record, is just delicious and is available at Trader Joe's).
Chinese Chicken Salad with Not-Spicy Not-Peanut Sauce
1 cooked Rotisserie chicken, cut into small pieces
1 thinly sliced cucumber
1 bag of thin noodles, cooked and chilled (spaghetti works well here)
Sesame-Sunflower or Peanut Butter Dressing
1 Tbs minced garlic
1/2 T minced ginger
1/4 cup sunflower butter (you could use peanut here)
2 Tbs sesame paste (I prefer Chinese, but you could also use tahini)
2 1/2 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1 1/2 T rice wine
2 T Chinese black vinegar
1 1/2 T sugar
3 T water
And for those who like it spicy: Chinese spicy oil and/or ground sichuan peppers
Mix the ingredients together and serve over the noodles, chicken and cucumbers.