Monday, March 30, 2009

Cucumber Nirvana

Who knew that the mild, unassuming cucumber could be the basis for a knock ‘em dead dish? Nancy Donnelly, that’s who.

Nancy is a D.C.-based television producer and an avid cook. When we met a few weeks ago at a baby shower we talked food pretty much non-stop. I asked her what she’s cooking these days and she got the look of an evangelist in her eyes and said, “Cucumber salad.”

Here’s the story, in her own words:

Back in 2004 I was on a shoot in China for two weeks. We went all around China in that time, and had many incredible meals. My DP on that trip was/is a native New Yorker but he had spent many years living in China. So he knew where to take us to eat authentic, fresh Chinese food that normal tourists wouldn't easily find but that we as Westerners could stomach - and a few that were definitely experimental.

Everywhere we went we would order enough food to share (family-style) with our 4-person crew, our minder, our fixer, and anyone else who may have been joining us for that meal. Those meals were the best part of the trip. Just about every restaurant we went to brought out as an appetizer - without our even ordering it - a heaping plate of cucumbers drenched in a yummy dressing that I could only guess included cilantro and some kind of pepper flakes. Probably soy sauce. So garlicky and spicy but cool with the cilantro and cucumbers. Each restaurant had a different variation on them - spicier, milder, peeled cucumbers, unpeeled cucumbers, neatly sliced cucumbers, broken-up cucumbers, etc. But they were always wonderful. I asked what the dish was called and was told that it was simply called "Huang gua." Translation: Cucumbers. After only a few meals with these cucumbers our team took to asking for two heaping plates of them: One plate for the team and one plate just for me. I LOVED huang gua.

So when I returned from China I missed the huang gua so much that I emailed my fixer, Lu Bo and asked him if he could figure out the recipe for me. It was one of those things he as a Chinese man just took for granted - like a basket of bread in one of our restaurants - but had never thought about the recipe. He said he guessed it had cucumbers, cilantro, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, and sesame oil. And to achieve the often broken-up appearance of the cucumbers, he suggested cutting the cucumbers into 3-inch sections, then cutting those sections in half, then flattening them with the flat side of a wide-blade knife (cleaver?) or something. Doing it that way instead of slicing them allows the scrumptious dressing to be absorbed into the cucumbers' little nooks and crannies!

I have been to a couple relatively authentic Chinese restaurants in the States since then and have asked for "huang gua" by name. It's almost always not on the menu but if you ask for it sometimes they'll bring some out for you. Even in the out-of-the-way, authentic places I've been to the Huang gua has not been quite as tasty as they were in China. And if you're looking for it at a Chinese joint mostly frequented by Westerners, forget it.

So, after much experimentation, here is my simple recipe - very much estimated, but easily adapted to your taste!

1 English (seedless) cucumber
1 handful cilantro leaves
1 medium clove garlic, minced
2 T rice vinegar
1 T soy sauce
1-2 tsp roasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp crushed pepper flakes
1/2 tsp chili oil (optional)

Randomly (but not completely) peel the cucumber and cut it into 3-inch sections. Put the sections into a plastic bag, take a heavy can of beans or something you can easily wield in your hand, and use the edge of the bottom of the can to lightly smash and roughly slice through the cucumbers. You just want them to appear broken-up, not mutilated - it may be a fine line! Open up the plastic bag and take the cucumber pieces out. Leave behind any mush you may have inadvertently created.

Combine cucumbers with all other ingredients in a bowl, toss, and enjoy!

This should feed two-four people, but I can eat the whole damn thing myself in one go.

I’ve made the cucumber salad twice now (and I currently have a cucumber in my fridge for another), and my mouth is literally watering as I think about it. The beauty of this recipe is that everyone can customize it to his/her own taste. I added a 1/2 teaspoon sugar to punch up the salty/spicy/sweet quotient, and one time I omitted the garlic and red pepper flakes and subbed in Chinese chili garlic sauce. It was truly awesome – once I had eaten all the cucumber I tipped my plate and drank the remaining sauce.

The pic above is mine (actually Dave’s); these are Nancy’s:

Friday, March 20, 2009

Not in My Backyard (unfortunately)

The Obamas have decided to plant a vegetable garden on the White House grounds, tangible evidence of their commitment to eating fresh, local, and seasonal food.

While, frankly, I’m not great with plants (I’ve had the same two somewhat sorry houseplants for seven years) I like to think that with a vegetable and herb garden I would be more proactive and dedicated. I would learn when to plant my arugula and snap peas, how to fertilize my potatoes and pumpkins, and how much to water my radishes and strawberries. I would weed and water in the mornings before the sun got too hot, and I would pick fresh produce just before dinner.

It’s a nice fantasy! And one that’s not likely to come to fruition anytime soon for this Brooklyn apartment-dweller. But, as Michelle Obama says, even if you don’t have a garden, “You can begin in your own cupboard by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”

Well said and well done.

Click here for an article about the garden.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Tough Night

I almost succumbed to the take-out menus tonight. I have a cold, work kept me away until 7 PM, and the few ingredients we had didn’t inspire me at all. Two flounder fillets threatening to go bad in the fridge. A lone grapefruit languishing in the nearly empty fruit bin. Rice? Rolls? Quinoa? Take-out?

I’m not anti-takeout, as long as it’s only occasional. We love burritos from Los Pollitos and I craved bibimbap from the Korean place nearby until it closed.

But we ate out a couple of times over the weekend, and I really didn’t feel like dropping $20 for dinner.

So I cooked. I put two frozen dinner rolls in the oven. I lightly oiled a Pyrex dish, salted and peppered the flounder fillets, and sprinkled them with grapefruit zest. I drizzled the fish with grapefruit juice and olive oil and roasted it for about 15 minutes. Finally, I wilted some baby greens with sautéed onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes. It would do.

I will be the first to say that this meal was only passable. It was nothing outstanding and nothing memorable. But it was a homecooked dinner, and sometimes that’s the best we can do.

(P.S. - Stay tuned for my St. Patrick's Day shepherd's pie -- I'm making it over the weekend.)

Monday, March 02, 2009

Not breaking the bank

It’s not even that I’m trying to cut our grocery bills as much as I’m trying to maintain them. As you can imagine, I could spend a FORTUNE on food. If Dave would let me, I would have a dinner party (at least) once a week. I would buy gobs of fresh herbs and exotic spices. Twenty-three-dollar-a-pound fish and porterhouse steaks would be regulars in our kitchen. And, don’t get me started on the expensive cheeses I would buy.

Since emptying our accounts to buy food is not the ideal scenario (in any economy) I’m working hard to maintain our standards of eating without breaking the bank. Think less prosciutto de Parma, more mortadella. One strategy I’ve been employing is to prepare more vegetarian meals, ideally two or three a week. Dried beans and tofu have become my kitchen friends. I’m also working more whole grains like farro and quinoa into my repertoire. Besides saving money, vegetarian meals are healthier for us (less cholesterol, saturated fat, and usually calories) -- and the planet. In a article
about Mark Bittman, Laura Miller explains the environmental toll of industrial meats and crops:

In brief, our current meat-heavy system of food production is unsustainable, a waste of resources and a source of pollution in the form of pesticides and hormones as well as methane gas from livestock manure. Our overreliance on a few big crops (especially corn and soy) [JH note: to feed the animals] depletes the soil, demanding the use of ever greater quantities of chemical fertilizers, whose manufacture requires massive amounts of fossil fuel. The foods produced by agribusiness, in the form of highly processed flours, fats and -- above all -- high-fructose corn syrup, have little nutritional value and foster a host of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure as well as obesity. The industries fabricating these foods have bought and paid for American politicians and government agencies, costing taxpayers billions of dollars per year in subsidies and other benefits paid to businesses who profit while eroding the public's health.

In keeping with my budget-friendly vegetarian goals I made homemade refried beans this weekend, and they were phenomenal! We wrapped them in flour tortillas with rice, avocado, and salsa and ate like (thrifty, healthy) kings.

I don’t have a specific recipe for the beans, but here’s a general method:

1. Cook a pound of dried beans according to package directions. I soaked mine overnight and then boiled them in water with minced onion, garlic, and green pepper. (Once cooked, I froze half of the beans in their cooking liquid for another meal and used half for the refried beans.)
2. Drain the beans.
3. In a nonstick pan, heat about a tablespoon of canola oil over medium-high heat. Add a diced onion and sauté it until it softens. Add a teaspoon of cumin, a healthy pinch of salt, and a dash of cayenne pepper to the onion and stir for about 30 seconds.
4. Add the beans to the pan, stir to coat. Using a potato masher, mash the beans to the desired consistency. Heat through. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if necessary.

There was also an interesting article in the Times today about how cooking magazines are reacting to the economy and providing more articles to their readers focused on “budget cooking”. Click here to read it.

(As you can see from the articles I link to online, I love If they ever required a subscription fee to read their articles as they once did, I would comply in a second. Some things are worth the money.)