Jew’s ear is a species of Auriculariales fungus found growing mainly on dead wood worldwide. And really, on a dead stump, far from the dinner table, is where it should’ve been left. It is a popular ingredient in many Chinese dishes and can readily be found on most restaurant menus – usually in the form of a cold salad, dressed with soy and vinegar, or in chunky pieces in soups. The mushroom itself is quite astonishing. The size of a hand and beautifully aubergine hued, they really do resemble ears in an almost disturbing way. But that is where the astonishment ends. To describe this mushroom as gelatinous with a mild flavour is to be unjustifiably kind. You know that little piece of cartilage you find along the breast bone of a chicken? The one that is so soft and thin, you don’t even realise you’ve cut through it until you unpleasantly bite down on a mouthful? Jew’s ears taste like that. Squeaky, softly rubbery, and with no discernible flavour at all. I am yet to try a dish I like them in. But I am nothing if not an adventurous eater, so I tried to incorporate them into a creamy mushroom soup.
To make the mushroom soup:
1) Prepare your favourite mushroom soup recipe.
2) DO NOT use any Jew’s ear mushrooms in your soup WHATSOEVER. They are vile. They will bring nothing to the table in terms of flavour and will merrily add a yucky, rubbery texture that will not zip up with a blender. Attempting to use them in a creamy soup will have disastrous consequences. If you absolutely have to try them, here is a recipe for soup that uses them whole.
And now, regular broadcasting will continue. And just to prove that I am not completely blinded by my animal love, and that I do understand the need for a balanced, humane and sustainable way of feeding this planet’s exploding population: A post on pork chops.
The adage that you should not judge a book by its cover is, in my humble opinion, completely inapplicable when it comes to food. Yes, I might quietly deduct a point from a restaurant’s score when they feel the need to advertise their food by using photos on their menu (thanks for ruining picture menu’s for me Gordon Ramsay – they’re the only way I know what I’m eating in China and now your Kitchen Nightmares rants have left me reeling as I wrestle with the restaurant photo-menu paradox: I should not be eating in a restaurant that puts photos of their food on their menu, but the only restaurant I can eat in without inadvertently ordering turtle soup with a soupçon of sea slug is a restaurant that puts photos of their food on their menu), but I will also seldom be persuaded to cook something unless it is accompanied by a photo to sell it to me. But I am going to ask you not to judge this dish by its cover. While it might look ugly to the point of being off putting, it is really, really good. In fact, Bush Man declared it the best thing he’s eaten in China – and we’ve been to Mr.& Mrs. Bund. And while it’s not exactly fine dining, and I suspect he was just trying to get into my pants, it does make for an exceptionally good and laughably easy family dinner.
If you found this post searching for “cooking with Chinese vegetables” then you probably think that asparagus is a shameful cop out. But I have included this recipe under that section, because not only is asparagus cheap and plentiful here, but they are really delicious. Tender and sweet with loads of asparagus flavour (as opposed to, you know, leek flavour, or Fresca maybe.) And in the supermarket they are as eye catching as hair vegetable or balsam pear, because they are freakishly long here, so you don’t feel like snapping off the tough end and tossing it away is such a waste. The secret to this dish is to use the best quality pork and asparagus you can find, because the flavour comes solely from these two ingredients.
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It’s not easy trying to cook like home in China. Things we take for granted every day can suddenly only be sourced through an internet search and a three hour long quest into the city. Lettuce is no exception. Don’t get me wrong, we can get lettuce in Qinpu. The varieties available are: Lettuce. That’s it. Chinese lettuce (yes, that’s really a thing). Salads get boring. They all look the same. They all taste the same. But what we can get is a wide variety of other leafy Chinese vegetables which we have started using raw as a lettuce substitute to curb the boredom. Hangzhou bok choi is one such vegetable. It is similar in texture and flavour to a Savoy cabbage, but has the added bonus of providing a fresh crunch to salads, thanks to its large midrib. So what do you make when you essentially have a cabbage, a few potatoes and a teeny tiny fridge (really, you should see it, shove a 5L water bottle in there and you’re pretty much at capacity) that needs a small half jar of mayo cleared out on a first in first out basis? Well, naturally, you make a Potato Caesar Coleslaw salad, of course.
This is a salad with an identity crisis. Like that country gal who runs away from home and moves to the big city to become an actress, only to pack it all in and go back to harvest the apple trees with pappa, it wants to be a fancy Caesar salad, but knows it is ultimately a good ‘ol potato salad at heart. You can substitute the bok choi for white cabbage, or pretty much any raw, leafy veg.
Serves: 4 Read the rest of this entry
I have been trying to diet. Really I have. But after one week, the only thing I have managed to lose is my sense of humour. It might be so that 25 is the new 35, but my face didn’t get the memo and neither did my body. To be fair, I was warned about this by those older and wiser than me: When you hit 35, things will go a bit pear shaped. Or, more accurately, apple shaped. The answer to “Where did my twenties go?” is indeed “Straight to your muffin top, dearie”. But I didn’t really believe them. How do you go from one shape to the next overnight? And yet it seems like that is exactly what happened. One minute I was worrying about how best to hide my saddle bags and the next thing I knew I had a fanny pack I had to camouflage. Of course it doesn’t help that I have a few things conspiring against me: Firstly, there is limited height into which I can fit any excess weight. Secondly, I have bad knees and a bad back which means many exercises are verboten. (I am possibly the only person in the history of the world who, as a little girl, had to face the humility of failing grade 1 ballet because my teacher, Miss Hazel, didn’t think my legs could handle moving to grade 2 yet. I don’t think “loser” adequately conveys the extent to which you are a sporting failure if you can’t pass first grade ballet!) And lastly – and here is the clincher, possibly exacerbating all of the above – I don’t like veggies. At least, not the type of veggies that are good for you in any way. Caramelised in butter and sugar like the Afrikaners like to do them? Sure! Drenched in a creamy, cheesy sauce? Sure! Steamed and healthy? Not so much. So it came as quite a surprise to me when I thoroughly enjoyed a plate of braised aubergines on a trip to Zhujiajiao recently. Granted, in one dish there is probably more sugar than in a Twinkie and more salt than in John McEnroe’s headband, but at least it’s a vegetable and it’s low in fat. The problem with eating anything in China worth writing about though, is that the recipe of said dish has inevitably been passed down from generation to generation and is a secret guarded more closely than the identity of the Stig. Of course that means that I simply have to wait for a disgruntled ex-employee to spill the beans in an otherwise boring book, or I could consult the world’s greatest oracle. So to Google we go! This recipe has been adapted from www.seriouseats.com. Bland veggies like aubergine and courgettes work well to absorb the flavoursome sauce, but it would work just as well with peppers and onions.
Sichuan Style Braised Eggplant
1/4 cup Shaoxing rice wine (I felt a bit lost in front of the rows and rows of rice wine in the shop, so eventually settled for the prettiest bottle, which turned out to be green plum wine. Oops. If you can’t get your hands on Shaoxing wine, you can use Japanese sake or dry sherry or even dry white wine. When using the latter, add a little more sugar during the cooking process. Read the rest of this entry
I don’t like veggies. At all. When Jessica Seinfeld appeared on Oprah with tips on how to get your kids to eat veggies, I was frantically taking notes. For myself. I eat them only because I have to and then grudgingly so. So I don’t know if it was with this energy that I went grocery shopping and whether the poor, shunned veggies could sense my reticence, but this recipe turned out disastrous. I don’t know why really, because despite not liking the ingredients in many other forms, I am rather partial to a good ratatouille. Which probably proves that veggies are not as intuitive as we might think they are. I have been eying the gorgeous, glossy Chinese aubergines (which are longer than regular aubergines) for some time now, and ratatouille seemed like the perfect way to try them out. I don’t know where I got this recipe from originally, but it’s supposed to be the recipe that Remy made in the movie Ratatouille. I don’t know whether that’s true (or as true as it can be, considering the claim is that an animated rat made a traditional French dish), but I do know that it’s a really good one, which is why it still tasted fantastic despite a slew of cockups. The first time I made them I did them in individual ramekins and unmoulded them to serve.
For the piperade (bottom layer):
1/2 red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
1/2 orange bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
3 tomatoes (about 12 ounces total weight), peeled, seeded and finely diced, juices reserved
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig flat-leaf parsley
1/2 bay leaf
salt Read the rest of this entry