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Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonMarch 3, 2006 5:15 AM


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Serious blogs are apparently not supposed to be of the "what I had for dinner last night" variety. Do I care what people think a serious blog is supposed to be about? No! I can think of few things I care less about, in fact. So here is the ultimate "what I had for dinner last night" post. (Except it was not last night, but some nights ago.) (Oh, sorry, co-bloggers!) People asked for this, and so here it is..... It is the promised report on my noodle dish experiments, inspired by my wonderful Walkabout culinary experiences in Taiwan, described in several posts earlier (see e.g. here, here, here......) A disclaimer: This is not really a recipe for beef noodles (beef "lo mien"), as I am not giving you measurements and the like. I am giving instead suggestions about things: ingredients and procedures..... I'm telling aspects of what worked best for me after a few attempts, a least so far. I'm also celebrating the "jazz" aspect I've noticed in Chinese cooking, which is the wonderful serendipitous aspect: I never use exactly the same things every time..... There are some broad themes for the framework, but some of the details can be swapped for others.... For example, I just like throwing in the butternut squash later on..... some nights I don't...I use something else. And my green leafy vegetable can vary a lot too.....I just get a variety of things on the market on the weekend, and open the fridge and see what I feel like on the night. A further disclaimer: I'm not a chef or a cook, and nor am I trying to be one! Any real chefs who know me, I apologize for this encroachment on your turf! (e.g. Mark B, if you're reading, sorry!) However, I have cooked a lot, since I was young, and I'm going to assume that you can cook just as well (or whatever) as I can. So think of this not as a cooking lesson, but as though I'm telling you about a new song or melody I learned. Not teaching you to sing. (If you don't cook...this might not be the place to learn.) Your results may vary. The day after I returned from Taiwan, I went to Chinatown. I wanted to find a good Chinese grocery store when I could get excellent ingredients and try to reproduce the flavours I'd been tasting on the walkabout. I found one after asking some people on the street. It's fantastic (although I get funny looks whenever I walk in - I'm the only non-Asian I've ever seen in there so far - people are fine with me once they see I'm just shopping like everyone else) and full of excellent things.... at great prices..... including a wonderful butcher, and stacks of fresh noodles. After a bit of reading around for what the key themes and flavours are, I then went to the store and created a new supply of important sauces and other ingredients for my cupboard and fridge, and I've been experimenting with cooking in this style for a while now.... So take a nice bit of high quality flank steak and cut it into strips, against the grain. Pop the strips into a bowl, sprinkle a bit of cornstarch in, coat the pieces with it and then put in some dark soy sauce. It'll sit there for a while and the sauce will penetrate into the meat, during the preparation of the other things. Start a nice big pan of water on the stove..... you're going to cook some noodles in a few minutes....


A sauce for later: Some blobs of thick oyster sauce...amazing stuff.....never ever thought of using it before. Put also in some light soy sauce.... a spoonful or two. Mix that with a cup and a half of beef stock. You've either made the beef stock yourself from tasty beef bits in an earlier session and saved it in the freezer/fridge, or you've gone and bought some off the shelf. Good to have a supply ready at all times. This time, I did not have any stored, and so I used some good off-the-shelf stuff....Trader Joe's does an excellent one, for is not a specialist item. Now, another fun part. Chopping stuff up with a big knife. First, garlic. Aside: People often get troubled by garlic....getting the skin off. No problem: Just take the cloves of garlic and crush them under the knife...... then they come right off. Ta-da!


Chop 'em up nice and fine in a few seconds. That water should be boiling by now. Take your desired quantity of fresh noodles (of a type that you like....I'm using some thin, white, flour noodles...lovely and soft and floury....) and drop them gently in, perhaps adding a pinch of salt... stir and agitate them a touch with something pointy (chopsticks, spoon, whatever) to separate them... and in a very short time they'll be ready.


Be sure to take them out of the hot water immediately. Drain them out into a big sieve or collander, for example. Then pop a tiny amount of sesame oil (another key flavour!) into them and move them around to coat them in it. This will stop them from sticking into a huge mass. Set them aside.....we'll need them later. Remember that sesame oil? Pop a little of it into the bottom of your wok, and get it nice and hot, by turning up the flame. Pop our beef pieces into this hot oil, spread them out and leave them in for a while to brown...for a good portion of a minute (longer if your stove is low on heat output)....... turing them once after a bit, browning again.... only then get them moving for a while, keeping them moving again for another large fraction of a minute... yes, "stir-frying", and then take them out of the pan, turn off the flame, and set them aside in something.


Back to chopping (I do this quickly, so if you're a slow chopper, then do all this before the cooking and frying we just did.) Chop up some carrots, some ginger (peel first and then make it finely chopped, like the can do onions, etc here too), and then take some large chunks out of a butternut squash. (I do not peel the latter. Keep it on (wash first)...the peel is tasty.) Also chop up some green tasty leafy vegetable of choice. Leave lots of leaves whole, maybe make the stems a touch smaller and separate off. Also, some brocolli is in there too. Get another pan of water boiling for the squash (or you can steam it if you prefer) and pop them into it....with pinch of salt.


Ok, after maybe heating up a little sesame oil in the wok again (or better, just using the caramelized remainders from the beef incident, maybe loosened with a tiny bit of soy sauce), with a nice high flame: in with the garlic! let them get coated with oil and begin to cook for a few seconds and then: in with the ginger! (and onions etc, if you're using those) then: in with the carrots! Now just keep everything moving, and the flame high....


You might want to sprinkle in some salt (I use Maldon sea salt in all my cooking, because I'm annoyingly pretentious sometimes...and oh yes, it tastes great!) and fresh ground black pepper here. I toss in the stem parts of my green vegetable at this point too....a little after the carrots.....(they are roughly the same size, you see)....keep things moving a bit.....brocolli pops in here.....


I briefly pop a cover on to trap some moisture to help cook things down a touch (optional....) and to allow me to reach over the rescue the squash..... drain them and put them to the side for a few seconds....Uncover with the soft leafy green parts.... move them around lightly.


30 seconds later add in the noodles, and pour on the sauce we had aside.... this adds a nice moisture base for everything (vary quantity as can go from here to a full soup, for example, with few major changes), pop in the cooked squash.... add back in the beef. Let it all cook on low flame for a short while longer...use your intuition from your other cooking experiences and your own tastes here to determine how much you want to cook things (and how much salt, etc).....but don't over cook. You want the noodles firm to the bite, and you want the vegetables not to be soggy....they should still have a lot of firmness when you're eating them. Takes a few attempts at this to learn the tolerances and get all this right....


This meal is in fact ready in less than half an hour, all preparation included by the way. Very quick. The final result:


What to do next? Well, serve into a nice bowl, grab your chopsticks, some nice tea, and go and enjoy! -cvj

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