The Story of a $3.00 Grill

6 Jun

In this episode of The Little Kitchen That Could, we are switching the gear a bit.  And it’s literally “we,” as I actually have a contributor in this special edition— my boyfriend.

So M.B. decided that he was craving some yakitori, the Japanese grilled chicken on a skewer over hot charcoal, and instead of yelping for a yakitori restaurant in San Francisco, he would like to make them himself.

After hours of diligent research on the internet, a crazier idea was born— “we should just build our own grill.”

A trip to the hardware wonderland, Home Depot, opened my eyes to the world of grills and barbecues.  Maybe it would be easier to just buy one.  There is a long aisle of fancy grills priced up to $400, doing whatever a chef’s heart desires.  As we temporarily set our minds on a $24.99 tabletop grill— the price seemed to justify skipping the whole shebange of building one— we learned that it was a gas only grill.

One of the things that makes yakitori so tasty is the charcoal and omitting that would make this whole project pointless.  So back to building one ourselves, which is a way cooler idea anyway.

Here is our $3.00 grill.  To assemble it, put one cinder block on top of another:

2 cinder blocks, $3.00. Fire extinguisher, $19.99.

Starting the grill was a bit challenging.  The cinder blocks do not have holes in them, which does not allow air to pass through.  But once the fire gets going, it is going (which took about 45 minutes and lots of liquid charcoal lighter):

We used lump charcoal, which is natural and burns much cleaner than briquette

Our assortment of skewers:

Beef, yakitori skewers, and mushrooms

Giant fresh water prawns

And we grilled and grilled…

And we ate and ate…

So the story of a $3.00 grill is a successful one.  Not only we had a feast of grilled kebabs, we are damn proud of our ghetto grill.  As obsessed as America is with grilling, from Bobby Flay’s face all over TV to that dancing commercial for Weber (took me some time to figure out what they were selling.  Cool commercial, though, I ain’t hatin’), has anyone wondered, how did people do it back in the day?  Like, how did people cook their meat before titanium was discovered, before propane gas was available?  And in every fancy backyard, there need be an equally fancy grill.  To Americans, a grill is a symbol of status.  An attitude to life.  An opening line to brag.

To me, it’s just food.  Good food.  And helluva lot of fun.

Must Have Soup: Clams

5 Jun

The Chinese clam soup is one of the easiest soups to make.  Ingredients: 1/2 lb of manila clams, 1 small piece of ginger, finely sliced, 1/2 cup of Chinese rice wine.

Clams soaked in water, ready to make soup

ginger

First, soak the clams in cold water for half an hour with a few drops of sesame oil.  The fragrance of sesame oil will help the clams spit out dirt.  In a pot, heat up 3 cups of water.  When the water comes to a boil, drop the clams in.  When the clams start to open up, pour in the rice wine.  When the soup comes to another boil, drop in the giner and season with salt.  That’s it.  Very simple, and very delicious. Bon appetite!

Stir-fried Water Spinach with Fermented Bean Curd (腐乳通菜)

1 Jun

Water spinach

It always makes me happy to see water spinach in season.  Sometimes known as the “hollow stem” spinach or Ong Choy, this popular vegetable among the working class, especially peasants, in Southeast Asia back in the old days is now widely enjoyed by mostly everyone.  It is common in Cantonese cuisine to fry this leafy vegetable with fermented bean curd. 

So what is fermented bean curd?  The same question was asked in Jackie Chan’s movie Armour of God (1987), to which Chan answered: “It’s Chinese cheese.”  (Please don’t ask me why I remember random sh** like that).   Similar to the process of making cheese, bean curd is exposed to aerial bacteria and fungal spores to achieve the status of fermentation, for preservation purpose and its damn good taste.  

Chinese fermented tofu. Can be found in most Chinese supermarkets and grocers

So to make this dish: 

Wash the vegetable thoroughly and cut it into roughly 2-inch segments, leaves and stems.  Heat up oil in a wok/frying pan.  When the oil is hot enough, drop in 3 cloves of chopped garlic and 2 cubes of bean curd.  Stir-fry the garlic and bean curd for 2 minutes.  Drop in the spinach.  Stir-fry for 2-3 minutes and pour in a tablespoon of the brine from the bean curd.  Taste to see if it’s salty enough— if not, add salt.  Depending on the brand of bean curd you get, you may get varying degrees of the fermented taste/saltiness.  

Cut and washed

A Family Tree of Palates

28 May

If you are familiar with the political history of Taiwan, my home until the age of 14, then you will understand the culinary diversity found in this wonderfully small island.  In 1949, the Chiang Kai-shek government fled mainland China, bringing close to 2 million of soldiers and civilians to Taiwan, all with various provincial backgrounds.  And among them were my grandparents.  

My grandma (nai-nai) from my dad’s side was a native of Sichuan, and thanks to her, I was exposed to the tingly-numbing Sichuan peppercorn early on.  My dad’s dad (yen-yen) came from Zhejiang, a province known for delicate preparation and vibrant, seasonal ingredients.

My mom’s mom (po-po) was a nurse during WWII in the city of Tianjin, a metropolis in Northeastern China.  As a kid I loved her pickled carrots and cucumbers, and the delicious noodles with pork and bean paste, known as zajiang mien.  Granddad (gong-gong) from my mom’s side hailed from a small village in the province of Hebei, where everyone knows how to roll out dumpling and bun doughs blindfolded.      

Raised by his Sichuan mother, Dad was trained to take on spicy food from a young age.  His twice-cooked pork is a must-learn on my list to master.  And although Mom never entered the kitchen before marrying Dad (and quite a few years after, too, as Dad would just cook for them both), she quickly discovered that she is blessed with a sharp palate and high aptitude after a few attempts at cooking.  Mommy is the best chef I know, also the chef I aspire to be one day.

So for me, it is rather difficult to sum up Chinese food in a few words given how differnt the style can be from one region to the next.  The most accurate way to describe “my” Chinese cooking is perhaps the word “homemade.”  No they may not be the dishes you find in your local Hunan Garden or the likes, but they are what I eat at home.  That’s why I want to share, so maybe you can enjoy such delectables and call them your homemade, too. 🙂

Ingredient: Preserved Vegetable, Zha Cai (榨菜)

26 May

Zha cai, out of the jar, not cut

So what is zha cai?  As its vaguely translated name suggests, it is a type of preserved vegetable.  The vegetable is a variant of mustard, sometimes referred to as Chinese mustard (no way!), and its leafy part is considered a rather fancy dish usually stir-fried with dried scallops and served at banquets.  

The root of this mustard is the part where zha cai comes from.  It is harvested and compressed down to yield all liquid, as “zha” in Chinese literally means compress.  It is preserved by salt and stored in clay jars.  The taste?  Crunchy and salty, which makes a great condiment for many things, such as the Sichuan style wontons

 Another famous dish zha cai is well known for is the pork zha cai noodles, as fried pork and zha cai is served over soup noodles.

Stir-fried Squid with Chinese Celery (芹菜炒鮮魷)

25 May

Top Chef Masters featured giant squid as an ingredient a short while ago, and even the most seasoned chefs were baffled by its gross appearance.  

Top Chef Masters contestant, Tony Mantuano, knifing through the sea monster

Yet all I could think about while watching the episode: It’s delicious!  I’ve been eating squid since I was a kid.  What is there to be scared of? 

Ok, I guess it can look kind of creepy...

There is something in texture and taste with squid that its other leggy friends (octopus, cuttlefish, etc.) cannot compare.  It does tend to be a bit fishier, I must say.  To tame it, I let my julienned squid sit in 1/2 cup of Chinese rice wine. 

To accompany its oceanic savoriness, Chinese celery is used. 

Chinese celery has a stronger celeriac taste than the American celery, and is much more “petite” in size.  It works well with the squid as it adds a crunchiness to each bite.  The key is to cut the vegetable in similar size as the squid.  

Squid cleaned and julienned, Chinese celery julienned, and chilli pepper

Before stir-frying, make sure the following aromatic ingredients are chopped: 

5 gloves of garlic 

1 tablespoon of ginger 

1 small chilli pepper (Serrano will do) 

Throw garlic, ginger, and pepper into the hot oil for the aroma to come out.  Once the garlic is starting to brown, dump in the squid.  It will take some time to cook it, depending on your stove.  After about 8 minutes of constant stirring (or when most liquid is dried up in the pan), drop in the celery.  Stir-fry until the squid curls up.  Season with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of sesame oil.   

Sunday dinner: Squid with celery, Luffa, and rice

 

 

Stir-fried Luffa with Garlic (清炒絲瓜)

24 May

Most people associate luffa with that rough, fibrous thing you use to scrub down dead skin.  Yes, it is great for that, once it has aged to the stage where the center of the vegetable is hardened and hallow.  But before it gets there, luffa is a great seasonal vegetable that has a sweet taste that is great when stir-fried with some garlic. 

The most annoying part of prepping this dish is peeling the luffa.  How annoying?  Its irregular skin that almost has a resemblance to a cactus is very challenging even with the best peeler in hand.  And I have fallen victim to it, as illustrated here: 

So to be safe, pay close attention to your fingers while peeling these babies.  To cook them, simply heat up oil in a wok/frying pan and drop in coarsely chopped garlic.  When you smell that good old fried garlic smell, throw in the vegetable.  Stir-fry until the vegetable is soft.  Luffa is packed with water so your dish will have quite a bit of liquid from the vegetable.  Season with salt.  And eat with a bowl of steamed rice.

Luffa

Peeled and sliced