Monday, October 27, 2008

Thai-Chinese Mixed Vegetables and Cashews with Oyster Sauce

It's been a while since I've added to the blog. My excuses include the wait for Anna to have her baby and Christina over in Athens a lot, catering and special cooking as a fill-in in Athens, the time to make up the Atlanta work, plus simply a heavy day-job schedule of late. I have not experimented with cooking much recently, so I dug an old standard out of my teaching repertoire. Besides, it was time for something Asian, since that is so much of what I actually cook for family.

This Chinese-origin dish is a very typical, as well as visually attractive, accompaniment to a curry in a Thai dinner. It often contains shrimp, peeled but with the tails left on for appearance. In the recipe here, I include roasted cashews rather than shrimp. Although authentic, cashews are the less common feature in a dish like this. (See Thai curry recipes in my blog postings of 8/12/06 and 1/25/08.)

In Thai cooking, unlike in Chinese cooking, the sauce for a stir-fried dish is not usually thickened. And typically fish sauce is the salt (and seasoning) source rather than soy sauce. In both cuisines, boiled (or 'steamed') unsalted white rice is the base with which the dish is served. (See method for Asian rice cooking in the blog posting of 1/26/08.) Americans think of rice or other starches in the meal as the accompaniment to a meat or vegetable dish. In East and Southeast Asian conceptualization, rice is the central part of the meal, and the other dishes are the 'with-rice' elements. In Thai, Chinese, and Malay-Indonesian, the verb 'to eat' is actually 'to eat rice,' no matter what you actually consume.

This dish serves six. And while it's a side dish for a dinner, it can be lunch or supper if accompanied by rice.

Thai-Chinese Mixed Vegetables and Cashews with Oyster Sauce Tim

1 medium-large carrot
1 stalk (medium sized) broccoli
6 medium large leaves of nappa cabbage (or substitute savoy cabbage)
8 medium-large mushrooms
1/2 cup (1/8 pound) snow peas
2 cloves garlic
1/4 inch fresh ginger
2 scallions (green onions)
2 tablespoons oil (not olive)
1 tablespoon Chinese oyster sauce (available at Asian groceries)
2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce (available at Asian groceries), or to taste -- the substitute is soy sauce
Salt to taste
1/4 cup roasted cashews, unsalted preferred

Prepare and stack the vegetables up in individual piles before cooking. Peel carrot and slice it 1/8-inch thick on the diagonal to make long oval pieces. Trim and discard the bottom 1/2 inch off the broccoli stem and peel the remaining stem. Cut the broccoli into flowerets of roughly equal size, including a length of stem. Rinse the nappa leaves in water and drain. Cut the bottom inch of stem off the leaves. Cut leaves into roughly three-inch square pieces. Trim off the tips of the mushrooms and slice the mushrooms 1/4-inch thick. Cut or break the tips off the snow peas and pull off the strings that run along their edges. Crush the garlic, peel, and mince them. Slice the ginger paper-thin, stack up and shred finely. Slice the scallions on a diagonal 1/4-inch thick. Measure the seasoning sauces into a small bowl.

In a wok or large frying pan heat 1 cup of water with 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Add the sliced carrots and broccoli pieces and boil, stirring and turning frequently, until just crisp-tender (bite a piece to test) and bright in color, about 1 to 1-1/2 minutes. Lift the vegetables out with a slotted spoon and place them in a bowl. Save the cooking water for later in the recipe. Rinse out the wok or frying pan and reheat. Add the oil, garlic, and ginger, and stir and fry over medium-high heat until fragrant and translucent but not browned, about 20 seconds. Add the mushrooms and stir and fry briefly to coat the vegetables with oil. Then add 1/4 cup of water drained from the carrots and broccoli and stir and fry just until liquid boils. Add the nappa plus snow peas, and stir and cook 1/2 minute. Add a little more of the vegetable water, if the pan is drying out. Add the par-cooked carrots and broccoli, the oyster sauce, and fish sauce. Stir and fry just until fully hot. Stir in the scallions, and remove from the heat. Taste the sauce and a small piece of vegetable and add salt if needed to be very slightly salty (the vegetables will absorb more salt, and the dish will be served with unsalted rice). Stir in the cashews.

Serve on a platter, piled up slightly in the middle.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Cajun Hash Browns: to brighten your breakfast or supper

So many eateries and food companies label something sprinkled with 'Cajun Seasoning' as 'Cajun'-- French fries, chicken, potato chips, even tofu -- that I can probably get away with one too.

The actual Cajuns are Louisianans of French ancestry, descendants of the 'Acadiens' (ah-'kah-dienh), French Catholic settlers who were driven out of the colony of Acadie (now Nova Scotia) in the mid-18th Century when the conquering British ethnically cleansed the area. Louisiana was at the time a French colony (although ironically had been transferred to Spain before the Acadiens arrived), and one of many destinations where the exiles sought refuge.

'Cajun Seasoning' is a packaged mixture from Louisiana Fish-Fry Products, Tony Cachere, McCormick, and others, and typically contains garlic salt, cayenne, paprika, black pepper, thyme, and ground celery seed and bay leaf. It is not something that Acadiens would have used in chilly maritime Canada. Cajun cooking, while having strong French influence and French names, was heavily influenced by Spaniards, local Indians, and especially people of African ancestry (who do you think got stuck doing a lot of the cooking in the old days in the deep South?). 'Gumbo', for example, has the recognizeable form of a West African 'soup' of fish or meat and vegetables stewed with smoked fish and chilies -- even the name 'gumbo' is a West African word for 'okra'.

The hash browns in my recipe use commercial 'Cajun Seasoning,' one of the few pre-mixed seasonings I cook with. Several brands are available at supermarkets. Be careful they do not contain MSG. (I'm using 'Louisiana', but I also like 'Cachere's'.) Unless you buy the low-salt variety, the mixture is quite salty. I simply add enough seasoning to salt the potatoes, and the amount of herbs and spices that come along with the salt is what the dish gets.

The recipe serves six for a side dish with breakfast or supper.

Cajun Hash Browns Tim

1-1/2 pounds russet (baking) type potatoes, equal sized
1 small-medium or half a large red bell pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 teaspoon commercial 'Cajun Seasoning' plus more to taste
3 large scallions (green onions)

Boil the potatoes in their skins until tender. Drain and cool. Peel if the skins are rough. Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise, then into quarters. Slice them across into 1/4-inch pieces. Set aside.

Seed the bell pepper and cut it into 1/2-inch dice. In a large non-stick frying pan, heat the oil medium hot and fry the peppers, turning them occasionally with a spatula, until tender. Add the potatoes, sprinkle with Cajun Seasoning, and fry, turning frequently until well heated. Cut the scallions, white and green parts, into 1/4-inch lengths. Add these to the potatoes when they are hot. Stir and turn with the spatula for several minutes over low heat. Taste a piece of potato, and if not salted enough, sprinkle either with more Cajun Seasoning or with plain salt, depending on whether they are spicy enough to your taste.