Archive for February, 2010

Fresh Chicken

February 24, 2010

Apples on display at the Civic Center Farmers' Market.

At the Civic Center farmers’ market today I ran across something I hadn’t noticed before. Outside the row of stalls selling everything from cheese, fish, and flowers to choi sum, kari leaves, and blood oranges, was a truck covered in tarps.

It was partially covered, actually, with a tarp draped across one side and extending over the top of the bed, and a small, portable pavilion had been set up in front to give the vendors and customers a place to stand and conduct business out of the drizzle that had been falling all morning. The vendor, a beefy Latino guy with a thin mustache and deep brown skin, was selling live chickens.

Held in crates too low for them to stand up, the Rhode Island reds sat three or four to a cage, stacked at least six or seven crates high, nervously watching as a woman pulled them from their confines. She reached into one cage and pulled out an obviously nervous bird.  I assumed at that point it was headed to the chopping block – that’s not true, I was actually waiting for her wring its neck – but, instead, she tucked the clucking hen gently into a paper grocery bag, folded over the top to close it, and then handed it to the man who then passed it over to a customer.

His customers were almost all Chinese: small women with short, sensible, no-nonsense haircuts and the standard-issue fleece jacket sold to tourists who never expected San Francisco to be as cold as it often is, with a stylized “SF” embroidered on the breast. As I watched, one woman was crouched down, tucking a full paper bag into a plastic bag with handles which would be easier to carry. She would, later that day probably, kill the bird at home for dinner that evening. You don’t get much fresher than that.

Five years ago, I managed an apartment building in Nob Hill, just a couple blocks outside Chinatown. Many of my tenants, as well as my neighbors in other buildings, were Chinese. I had only lived in San Francisco less than two years at that point and was even newer to the neighborhood.

Working in an empty apartment one afternoon, repairing a window, I was surprised by the sudden sound of a chicken clucking. I opened the window on which I had been working a little farther and leaned my head out into the light well. Several long moments later, I heard it again. The chicken sounds were coming from an apartment on the fourth floor, where Mrs. Fang lived.

I knew that many Chinese – and Latinos – often bought live chickens to slaughter at home. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that the tenants who lived in the small but comfortable studios in my building were doing it, too. As a kid, my family had raised chickens on our small farm and I tended to think of slaughtering chickens as a fairly messy business best done outdoors. But, no, when one’s total acreage consisted of about 450 to 500 square feet on the fourth floor of a 99-year old apartment building, one made do with what one had.

I heard nothing else after several moments and returned to my work. The doomed bird would end up, no doubt, as the centerpiece of dinner that evening, perhaps as salt-baked chicken, or in a rich soup. The next morning, hauling out the trash to be picked up by the city, I saw no feathers, nor any other signs of the poultricide that had taken place the day before. In fact, over the next couple of years, I never found any hints of other animals being dispatched in the building. The home-butchering was quiet, tidy, and discreet. It was just as well: we didn’t allow pets, anyway.

Enjoyment of Food as Gratitude

February 22, 2010

“Enjoying food, really enjoying food, is a meditation. A prayer. A thank you to nature and our higher power.”
Marlena Spieler

Just Food

February 21, 2010

From film director Ali Selim’s essay about his beautiful 2005 film, “Sweet Land“:

The world really is a small place and, as we move around it and commingle, we have the ability to recognize our similarities, to go beyond tolerance toward acceptance, to redefine communities and humanity out of new combinations of people, sounds, stories and, of course, food.

When Inge says, “Just food,” she is telling him to savor, find the common ground. The food she prepared may taste a little different or have a different texture, sure, but Olaf enjoys it nonetheless. As with all good food it satisfies, inspires and nourishes.

So, he eats.

A Little Respect for the Pock-marked Old Woman

February 20, 2010

For several years now I’ve had a lovely little thing going with Mapo tofu, that quintessentially Sichuan dish of chilies, tofu, and minced pork. In truth, it’s difficult to narrow down just what about it appeals to me: bold flavors, wonderful textural contrasts, and its simplicity are all points in its favor. Of course, there’s more than that happening in a dish of the stuff. What every truly great dish has – and Mapo tofu is surely one of the great dishes of Chinese or even world cuisine – is a good background story. Without that, it would still be wonderful but it wouldn’t be great.

Sometime late in the Qing Dynasty, according to various stories, a widow known as Old Lady Chen ran an inn on the outskirts of Chengdu. Author and expert in Sichuan cuisine Fuchsia Dunlop writes Old Lady Chen was the wife of the restaurateur who owned the inn. In any case, her customers were the laborers and poor merchants who couldn’t afford to stay at the nicer places in the center of town. Her own story was no less poignant, however. Her face was ravaged with the scars of small pox and she was forced to live outside the city as a result.

Serve Mapo tofu over freshly steamed rice.

The inn was located between a tofu maker and a butcher who specialized in lamb. Some of Old Lady Chen’s customers were cooking oil merchants and so she combined the three ingredients along with the chilies that are so popular in Sichuanese cooking to produce a dish that gained notoriety. Stories say Mapo tofu became so popular people traveled long distances just to try it. Given what she must have had to endure as a result of her scars, it’s nice to think she enjoyed both prosperity and respect as a result.

The name of the dish, incidentally, is taken directly from Old Lady Chen. Ma is short for “mazi” which means pock-marked as a result of small pox. “Po” means “old woman”. Put them together and you have Pock-marked Old Woman’s Tofu. The name belies the great pleasure of the dish; yet another contrast.

Mapo tofu is a sensual adventure: crisp morsels of pork pair up with soft, smooth tofu in an oily – but not greasy – bright, red sauce. The spicy but gentle burn of chili stands up against the blandness of the tofu although neither is overwhelmed or overwhelming. In fact, the heat of the chilies is a perfect complement to the unassuming flavor of the tofu. In this particular dish, tofu doesn’t need to be fried beforehand or marinated in anything to give it flavor. It readily absorbs the chili-laden oil that forms the framework of the sauce but it isn’t saturated. In a way, the deep flavors of the sauce really allow the tofu to present itself simply for what it is and it comes off beautifully. Once the dish is finished cooking, ground Sichuan pepper is sprinkled across, leaving the diner with a pleasant, tingling sensation on her lips as she eats.

Good tofu, in this particular case, is essential and we’re fortunate in San Francisco to have a very good tofu producer.

I rarely order Mapo tofu in restaurants anymore because it is so often disappointing. Typically, the heat is toned down far too much and the beautiful textural contrasts seem to disappear in kitchens used to churning out generic Chinese food for non-Chinese customers. Even in restaurants that cater almost exclusively to Chinese tastes, however, I’ve found the Mapo tofu to be less than compelling and, in some cases, loaded with ingredients – such as peas – which have no business being there.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe is easily the most authentic, but like any recipe when it appears in a different kitchen, I’ve altered it a bit to fit my tastes. Dunlop calls for the more traditional beef (not lamb!) but I find that beef doesn’t stand up as well to the pungent demands of the chili sauce as well as pork. I typically use scallions rather than leeks and, rather than dried Sichuanese chilies, I use Korean chili flakes, called koch’u karu. I frequently make kimchi so I almost always have an abundance of them on hand.

1 block firm tofu
4-6 scallions
½ cup peanut oil
4 ounces minced pork
2-3 tablespoons Sichuanese chili bean paste
1 heaping tablespoon fermented black beans
1 tablespoon coarse ground dried chilies
1 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon Shao Xing rice wine
4 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 6 tablespoons of cold water
1 teaspoon ground, roasted Sichuan peppercorns

  • Cut the bean curd into ¾ inch cubes and let steep in hot water to warm them up before they go into the wok.
  • Slice the scallions on the bias into 1 ½-inch lengths (I usually mince the white ends and add them to the dish early in the cooking).
  • In a hot wok, add all the oil and then the minced pork, letting it fry until it’s crisp but not dried out.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and add the chili bean paste and ground chilies, stir frying them for about 30 seconds until the oil turns a vibrant red (I usually add the chopped scallion whites at this point). Add the fermented black beans and cook for another 30 seconds.
  • Pour in the stock, the soy sauce, and the rice wine. Now add the drained tofu, folding it carefully into the meat and oil mixture to avoid breaking up the cubes. Simmer over low heat for about five minutes, allowing the tofu to absorb the various flavors.
  • Add the scallions, stirring them into the sauce, and then – in two or three doses – add the cornstarch, stirring it gently into the mixture until the sauce begins to thicken, clinging to the cubes of tofu and meat.
  • Sprinkle with the ground Sichuan pepper corns, stir again, and serve.

    With rice, serves two generously and four quite adequately.

Pitaya: the Drag Queen of Exotic Fruit

February 7, 2010

Slice open a dragonfruit and this is what you'll find.

This essay originally appeared Oct. 13, 2009, at

Amidst the piles of bok choy, gai lan, and other Asian vegetables at last Wednesday’s farmers’ market at San Francisco’s Civic Center was a box filled with what appeared to be several kohlrabi in full drag. Brilliant fuschia, I picked one up in amazement. The look on my face must have tipped off the vendor because she asked me “Do you know what that is?”

I had no idea.

“Dragon fruit,” she replied. “They’re very sweet.”

Sounded good to me and suitably exotic, to boot. Standing nearby was an older woman with a heavy Russian accent. “They are very, very nutritious,” she chimed in. “I eat them often.”

Well, that pretty much settled it. I’ll give it a shot, I told the vendor. How much?

“Five dollars,” she replied. OK, by that point, I was committed and my curiosity too aroused to ignore. I pulled the last five ones from my wallet and handed them over, depositing my flashy fruit into my grocery bags with the other produce I had purchased at other stands.

Once I got the dragon fruit home, I began looking for information on line. As it turns out, dragon fruit – also known as pitaya, pitahaya, and thang loy – is immensely popular in much of Asia. The vendor, who had grown the fruit on her farm near Sacramento, had said as much, adding that her father had planted the trees from seed back in 1989. Despite its popularity in Asia, it’s actually native to Central America.

Pitaya is rich in vitamins – C, most notably – as well as numerous other nutrients including B vitamins, phosphorous and, surprisingly, calcium. It’s a good source of fiber and, like watermelon, it’s a watery fruit and quite refreshing.

In California, pitaya is in season from September through November. When ripe (the skin should give gently but remain firm) the inedible skin peels away easily to reveal either white, bright red, or even yellow flesh underneath. Like kiwi, to which it’s similar in taste, it’s filled with hundreds of tiny, black, edible seeds. The flesh is firm but easy to cut, which makes it a natural for fruit salads. It will hold its shape nicely cut into cubes or other shapes, and remain firm enough to provide a wonderful contrast with other ingredients. Pitaya chills nicely; store it in the refrigerator.

Pitaya seems to inspire flamboyance – or silliness, depending upon your viewpoint – in its fans. Those who have helped to develop new strains of the fruit seem to find that normal adjectives simply aren’t descriptive enough. One Florida grower offers David Bowie, Bloody Mary, Purple Haze, Seoul Kitchen, Cosmic Charlie, and L.A. Woman among his selections. I can only imagine what it must be like to ask for five pounds of Purple Haze at a market.

Quinces: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

February 7, 2010

This essay originally appeared Nov. 9, 2009, at

Quince. For the longest time, I really had no idea what to do with this enigmatic fruit. It’s enjoyed in many other parts of the world and, while it grows quite nicely here in a number of regions of the United States, it seems only slightly more common than, say, durian or pitaya.

Quince is lovely to look at (it also sports a fuzzy outer skin not dissimilar to peaches) and has a fresh, almost citrusy scent. When raw, it’s largely inedible. No, let me take that back: it is inedible. Hard and grainy, it’s a bit like biting into a very under-ripe pear that’s been dusted with alum, but not as appealing. In the English-speaking world, someone in a difficult predicament finds themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Turks, on the other hand, find themselves eating quinces.

Florin Bleiceanu, Stock.xchng

The source of legendary problems and a nice addition to apple pie.

Once quite common in Britain, the quince fell out of favor but seems to be enjoying a minor revival. It never really caught on in the United States, although the late Edna Lewis wrote that they were once grown “on every homestead in the South.” Perhaps it’s a matter of convenience: unlike apples or pears, of which it appears to be a cross (but is not) you simply can’t just pull one from the tree and eat it. One wonders what it was that convinced the first person to try quince to persevere.

According to legend, Paris gave Aphrodite a quince – the golden apple – because she was so beautiful (actually, it was because she bribed him which lead, eventually, to that whole mess with Helen of Troy). Somewhere else, I’ve run across mention of quince being the fruit that caused so much trouble for Adam and Eve; there’s a pattern evolving here.

So, for all the terrible things I’ve just said about quince and for all the trouble they seem to cause, I should state that quince cooks up beautifully. It is delicious, especially when cooked much as one would apples or pears, for that matter. It also takes considerably longer to cook than either apples or pears and it’s a good idea to sauté them even before baking them into pies. I sautéed them in butter with apples and cinnamon and sugar just a week or so ago and served it over pancakes, and taking a cue from a Turkish recipe, I cooked quince with pomegranate juice, garlic, shallots, and cinnamon as a sauce for lamb. I recall another recipe that pairs them with beef, but I can’t find it at the moment.

Quinces keep forever – I just cooked one that had been hanging about for the past month in a fruit bowl in the kitchen. They’re great sources of Vitamin C and, unsurprisingly, fiber. They smell good. I rather like the sound of them, too. Now that we’re into November, we should have them around for a few more weeks but only a for a few more weeks. If only Paris had waited until winter.

A Sign of Good Things To Come

February 4, 2010
At the moment – at this very moment – I’m broke. Like freelance writers everywhere, I am dependent upon the whims of editors and their bookkeepers to ensure I receive payment for my work. Unlike many freelancers, I know how to cook and that makes my life a little easier.

Part of the beauty of knowing how to cook, even in the face of abject poverty – whether it is temporary or long term – is knowing how to make the best of sometimes very limited ingredients. If I have staples on hand, I feel secure. Even in the direst of circumstances, I can at least turn out a solid meal that will not only sustain me physically – hunger is hell on the body – but emotionally. Dreary food is hell on the spirit.

Tonight, I made one of the dishes I grew up with, pinto beans and corn bread. I love beans and I make damned good corn bread. What I love about beans and corn bread, even more than its tiny impact on my budget, is that even when I’m feeling flush, I still love to cook it. Even when money is the very least of my worries, a pot of beans simmering away on the stove top with a ham hock or two bobbing about amidst the legumes is remarkably reassuring. It is comforting in the way a warm house is comforting when one comes in from the cold, or comforting as the return of a loved one is after a long, unsure absence.

Corn bread, too, baking in the oven is a source of surety. Pouring the batter into a scalding iron skillet – hearing it sizzle and watching it bubble around the edges of the pan as it hits the melted fat – is a call not only to the taste buds but a wealth of scents and sounds. Corn bread is enveloping comfort at its best. Simple to make with none of the fussiness of yeast breads, corn bread’s gritty bite is substantial with flavor and nourishment and reliability.

Once the bread is done and the beans are finished simmering, I love to dunk the buttery slices of bread into the pot liquor, letting them soak up as much liquid as possible while still being able to get the piece into my mouth before it disintegrates from the weight of the juices. I always eat too much corn bread when I serve it with beans; the combination of flavors is irresistible.

I wasn’t aware that not everyone felt as highly about beans, or corn bread, until I was living on my own. A woman with whom I was friendly and I met on the street. This was in my hometown, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I must have stepped out to pick up something because I had beans cooking on the stove at home and in the course of chatting, I invited her over for dinner.

“Oh, no,” she insisted. “I’m planning on making curry. Come to my house, instead.” I remember, too, she was from Illinois, or someplace like that, and like many of my friends was a student at the university. I did have dinner with her at her house, but I was disappointed she seemed so uninterested in what I had planned. Beans and corn bread, I came to realize, was not a dish highly prized by everyone.

Nearly 25 years after that encounter, though, I still prize them and tonight, even with an empty checking account and a sense of impatience as I wait for the mail carrier to push those highly anticipated checks through the mail slot in the door to my flat, I feel that same sense of satisfied pleasure that only comes with a meal one truly enjoys. Beans and corn bread mean everything is, and is going to be, just fine.