Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “This could be the biggest snowstorm in the history of New York City,” and governor Andrew M. Cuomo said, “This is going to be a blizzard. It is a serious blizzard. It should not be taken lightly.” The national media, which is centered in New York City, was calling this Snowmageddon 2015 or Snowpocalypse 2015. The subway in the city was shut down and a travel ban was imposed overnight on Monday of January 26th. That was the kind of caution and hype being doled out for an impending winter storm — our first major one of the season. I was quite excited by the prospect of a day of forced indoor activities.
Cucumbers are known as “yellow gourds” (黃瓜) in Chinese. They are sometime also called “baby yellow gourds” (小黃瓜). I’ve always wondered why they’re called “yellow” since cucumbers are obviously green. Even with all the different varieties, they are all still green. But a few years ago while having dinner at a relative’s home in Hong Kong, her cook served a soup made with a wrinkly yellow-brown skinned gourd with slightly green flesh that she announced was mature cucumbers. That’s when I realized why cucumbers are called “yellow gourd.” They turn into a yellowish gourd with tough dry skin when mature.
For millenniums the Chinese prepared their meals with the express purpose of maintaining a healthy constitution. In fact the earliest texts of Chinese cookery read more like a pharmacologist’s guide than recipe book. It is not surprising that this practice has become a formalized discipline known as food therapy, and making herbal soup one of its best-developed aspects.
Every summer when the weather gets sultry my partner, Warren, who is a “Swamp Yankee” with family directly descended from the Mayflower Pilgrims, gets nostalgic and yearns to get in touch with his roots. This year is no exception and last week we spent an extended weekend in Provincetown to indulge in his nostalgia. Throughout our stay we drove around Southern New England and ate wonderful shore dinners and other scrumptious meals at restaurants all over Cape Cod. We gorged ourselves on fish and chips, lobster rolls, clam cakes, stuffed quahogs and fresh sweet corns. By Sunday I was lusting after the fresh seafood and local farm produce, and decided to make a shore dinner but gave each course an Asian twist.
Today (July 1st, 2010) a law prohibiting the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins goes into effect in the state of Hawaii. Hailed as a victory, albeit a small one, by conservationists, this law nevertheless is a major step in recognizing the need for government action to help save the shark. Sought after by the Chinese for millenniums, shark fins were a delicacy reserved for the elite, and served at important celebrations and banquets. With the recent rise of the middle class in China the demand for shark fins has skyrocketed. This Chinese fondness for shark fins is threatening the survival of the sharks. Although laws banning consumption of shark fins is a positive step in limiting shark fins trade we, as consumers, must also consciously make a choice not to eat shark fins if we were to succeed in preventing the shark’s extinction.
Like many home cooks I love to collect all kinds of cooking utensils, appliances, cookware and tableware. I own a strawberry huller, fish poacher, taco frying tongs and artichoke plates. Then after using them once or twice they’re usually banished deep in a drawer or at the back of a kitchen cabinet, where they’re undiscovered for years. But there is one curious looking specialty clay pot, with a steam spout in the middle, that I use regularly for making the most delicious chicken soup. It is a Yunnan (雲南) steam clay pot (汽鍋).
One of my favorite activities when traveling is to visit local food markets. Last week, while wandering through the produce section of a wet market in Shanghai, I found something I’d never seen before. A large unmarked basket was full of miniature bright red fruits freckled with light brown dots that resembled crabapples. They had long green stems attached, and visible sepal crowns at the bottom. According to the friendly wrinkled-faced vendor I had stumbled upon haw fruit.
As an open-minded omnivore, I enjoy vegetarian dishes as much as meat dishes. On many occasions I’ve successfully made vegetarian dishes for my vegetarian friends. Many were surprised at the diversity of Chinese vegetarian dishes and commented how flavorful and hearty they were. The key to a rich tasty vegetarian dish is to make use of what is known as umami, which is a Japanese word used to express the fifth taste in addition to the generally accepted four tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In Chinese umami is known as xian (鮮) and making stock full of umami is the basis for a successful vegetarian dish.
Hunting for white asparagus at the start of the summer is not exactly orthodox. But that is what I found myself doing a few days ago. It’s not that I haven’t had any asparagus this spring. There was an abundance of green asparagus in the farmer’s markets and Pathmark across the street from where we live. Over the last few months I’ve had them steamed with butter, grilled with olive oil, dressed with Hollandaise sauce and mixed in fried rice. But a few days ago I spotted some fresh and peppy looking mud crabs in Chinatown, which instantly suggested “white asparagus and crabmeat soup” like those found in many traditional Chinese restaurants in Asia. This notion suddenly became an obsession and I immediately bought some of the crabs and went on a quest for white asparagus.
“Last Winter Bamboo of the Season!” proclaimed the sign I saw last weekend in front of the Hong Kong Market on Hester Street in Chinatown. This would be the last shipment from China for this year’s winter bamboo crop. I was immediately reminded of a winter soup I fell in love with when I was working in Shanghai. It is called “Yan Du Xian” (腌篤鮮), a simple, hearty, quintessentially Shanghainese soup made from a duo of cured pork and fresh pork plus fresh winter bamboo shoots (冬筍).