One of the most generally useful Asian cookbooks I own is The Complete Book of Japanese Cooking, by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz and Mitsuko Endo, which I found at a Half-Price Books near my old apartment in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It’s wide in scope, and covers most of the basic and traditional dishes. When I was a budding anime fan in college, I used to use it as a reference guide to the various things the characters ate.

It’s an older cookbook (it was first published in 1976), and it therefore assumes that you’re going to have to make your own stocks and condiments rather than buying them at the supermarket (imagine, if you can in our own sushi-in-the-deli century, a day when supermarkets carried almost no Asian food!). This isn’t a bad thing, since it’s instructive to see how they’re made…and if you’ve got the time, homemade always tastes better anyway.

Japan’s got a lot to teach single people about cooking. Not only do they have to provide quick, tasty food for a huge population of workers, but they have to do it in some pretty oppressive summer heat. This is a classic example:

Somen no Hiyashisuimono (from The Complete Book of Japanese Cooking)

  • 1 oz (about 2 bundles) somen noodles (you can usually find these in your supermarket’s Asian section. If not, go to your nearest Asian market and buy some after staring slack-jawed at their amazing noodle section for a while)
  • 3 cups dashi (I just use Hon-Dashi, following the package directions)
  • 1 tsp light soy sauce
  • 6 large green beans
  • salt

Add noodles to a medium saucepan of boiling water and cook uncovered for 5 minutes. Return to a boil and add 1 cup cold water, return to a boil again, and drain. Rinse noodles with cold water in a colander, drain, and set aside.

Bring dashi stock to boil in a saucepan and add the soy sauce and salt to taste. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Drop beans into boiling, salted water and cook uncovered for 5 minutes. Drain, rinse, and cool. Cut each bean into three diagonal slices.

Divide noodles amongst 4 bowls and add stock and beans.

I had this with some grilled beef in bulgogi marinade (Choripdong’s my brand of preference for this most useful item). Total cooking time…25 minutes. Perfect for a muggy day after work.

Sometimes you find interesting cookbooks in unlikely places. Having been coerced (well, strongly encouraged) by my girlfriend and my friend Scott to attend the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, I was hiding in the Faire’s tiny bookshop from the many, many people dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow (this was right after the last Pirates of the Carribean movie was released) and discovered A Taste of England, by Josy Argy and Wendy Riches, sitting on the remainder shelf. It’s essentially a British version of A Taste of Pennsylvania History, but unlike Elliott and Nunley’s later effort, A Taste of England got government support from the English Tourist Board.

There’s an ongoing effort in Britain to rediscover national and local foodways, proud traditions which went into hibernation with the advent of the Empire, the Industrial Revolution and processed foods. This book’s an early (1979) example of the movement, and has a lot of really interesting recipes.

After proudly consuming some very American 4th of July barbecue items on Friday, what’s an Anglophile to do to in repentance but cook something with “Britannia” in its name?

Chicken Britannia (from A Taste of England: Traditional English Food – Where to Find It and How to Cook It)

  • 1 chicken, quartered
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 4 tsp made English mustard (Colman’s)
  • 3/4 cup chicken stock
  • fresh breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Mix salt, pepper, and cumin and rub into chicken pieces. Spread with mustard and cover with breadcrumbs. Place in baking pan and add stock. Bake for about an hour, until the crumbs and mustard have set into a crunchy coating. Baste and return to oven for another 30 minutes. Serve with savory rice (Near East garlic rice pilaf works well) and pan juices.

This recipe produces a tender, faintly mustardy chicken. The book said it’s also good cold for picnics, and I believe it. It was contributed by the Shant Hotel in Kent, near Maidstone. Apparently the historic building was gutted by a fire in 2002, but it’s still listed as in operation on several current travel websites so perhaps the establishment and the chicken still survive, in name at least. UK readers, please enlighten!

I found my copy of Chinese Cuisine from the Master Chefs of China languishing on the used book shelf of Auntie’s Bookstore while home in Spokane for the holidays a few years ago, and it quickly became one of my favorites. No other Chinese cookbook I’ve encountered has ever been so…aggressive about its Chineseness. It’s focused around many of the State-run “court” restaurants which have been oft-reviled in travel literature as overpriced tourist traps: this means complicated dishes and exotic ingredients. What other cookbook would dare include six recipes for sea cucumbers and feature the ferociously complex Dragon and Phoenix Cold Dishes as its first appetizer?

I think it’s because China Pictorial‘s editors meant the book to be just as much a “brag book” as an actual useful cookbook. China’s always been (justifiably) proud of its culinary traditions; when they sent their first Taikonaut into orbit, the PRC’s propaganda ministry made sure to let the world know that his space rations would be the tastiest ever carried by a space explorer.

Still, nestled in amongst the elaborately sculpted court dishes are some real gems, one of which is Taiyuan-Style Braised Beef (the recipe was contributed by Beijing’s Jinyang Restaurant). It’s easy, fast, and very tasty.

Taiyuan-Style Braised Beef (from Chinese Cuisine from the Master Chefs of China)

  • 3/4 lb beef, sliced thin
  • 8 scallions, cut into 1and 1/2 inch pieces
  • 2 tbs cornstarch paste (mix 2 tbs cornstarch with 2 tbs water)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tsp rice wine
  • 1 anise star (this is the big star shaped kind, not the little seeds. You can find them in Asian or Mexican food stores – it adds a definite liquorice flavor)
  • 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns (you can substitute black peppercorns in a pinch, but the flavor will be different)
  • 1/2 cup clear chicken/duck stock (the original recipe calls for a mix, but you can use just 1/2 cup chicken stock and preserve most of the intended flavor)
  • 1/2 cup sesame oil
  • pinch shredded ginger

Pour 1 tsp boiling water over peppercorns and let steep 5 minutes. Combine soy sauce and cornstarch paste in a bowl. Add beef and scallions and mix. Heat sesame oil in a wok over high flame. Add anise star, then beef/scallion mixture and stir-fry for 15 seconds. Add stock, rice wine, and 1 tsp of the peppercorn infusion. Cover and cook for 1 minute. Sprinkle ginger on top and serve.

I have returned from my conference in Bethlehem, PA two cookbooks richer courtesy of the Moravian Book Store.

Another Bethlehem landmark I was hoping to investigate in detail was The Sun Inn, which has been a part of the local townscape since 1758 and has a lengthy 18th Century celebrity guest list. I had found out about The Sun via Debbie Nunley and Karen Jane Elliott’s A Taste of Pennsylvania History, which I picked up back when I moved to the Philadelphia area five years ago. Time has not been kind to this book…when I showed it to some other librarians at breakfast they went through it and pointed out all the places which had burned down or gone out of business since.

The Sun’s still there and still intact, but the restaurant aspect of the site is defunct, and if you want to eat there you need to rent it out and hire a caterer. It’s still a beautifully restored building, however.

Denied my chance to dine by proxy with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and the Marquis de Lafayette (one day I need to find out where Sir William Howe, Lord Cornwallis, and Lord Hugh Percy had dinner…the imagined conversation would be much more congenial), I was left with the two recipes the Sun had provided for the cookbook. My girlfriend’s allergic to shellfish, so Gouvernor Morris’ Crab Soup was out and Benjamin Franklin’s Almond Trout was in. 

I ended up not being able to get the almond menthe the recipe called for (in Pennsylvania we are at the mercy of the State Liquor Control Board), so I crossed my fingers and tried Amaretto instead. This worked so well that I named my Almond Trout variant after Franklin’s Loyalist nemesis, Pennsylvania’s own Joseph Galloway.

Almond Trout Joseph Galloway

  • 2 tbs butter, divided
  • 2 tbs sliced almonds
  • 2 8oz rainbow trout fillets, boned
  • 3 tbs Amaretto
  • 1 cup heavy cream 

Heat 1 tbs butter in skillet. Add almonds and trout and cook for 2 minutes. Place 1/2 tbs butter on top of each trout fillet and broil for 7-10 minutes. For sauce, light Amaretto in a medium saucepan. When flame goes out, add cream and simmer to thicken, stirring constantly. Place one fillet on each of two plates and top with sauce.

This is actually a tremendously fast recipe…the longest part of it is waiting for the sauce to thicken and even with that it took me only about 25 minutes to get it all prepared, so it’s good for a work night.  

Potatoes are a natural side for fish. This is my new potato cheat.

Very Easy New Potatoes

  • 6-10 new potatoes
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp Italian Seasoning
  • 1/4 tsp paprika or to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400F. Line a small baking pan with foil. Add olive oil to pan and sprinkle spices on top. Roll pan to coat evenly. Cut potatoes in half and place cut side down in pan.  Bake for 45 minutes or until tender.

I’m at a conference this week, so I won’t have much chance to experiment. Here’s something to tide you over: 

Like many gaijin, I am a big fan of katsu. When the Portuguese missionaries showed up in Japan in the 1500s, they brought along both the Roman Catholic Church, and their mastery of fried foods. Catholicism ended up not being a permanent fixture, but nobody could debate the tastiness of the frying. Tempura and pork and chicken katsu have remained a vital part of japanese cuisine, and a refuge for westerners on whom the flavors of raw fish and edamame are lost.

This particular katsu recipe has the double virtues of being fast and easy. I’ve seen other recipes that advise marinating your chicken or pork with a little soy sauce, sake, and sliced scallions before frying. These are tasty, but less convenient for a work night.

Chicken Katsu (from Hiroko Shimbo’s The Japanese Kitchen)

  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 3 eggs beaten  with 1/3 cup water
  • 2 cups panko crumbs
  • oil for frying
  • 1/2 head cabbage shredded

Put the flour, egg/water mixture, and panko crumbs into separate bowls. Dip the chicken breasts into the flour, then the egg wash, then back into the flour, then back into the egg again, and roll in panko crumbs. Heat oil for frying (about 2 inches) and fry chicken breasts about five minutes on each side, until golden brown. Serve with shredded cabbage and tonkatsu sosu.

This one’s much more simple than it looks, but it’s time consuming. Save it for a Sunday and try to rope in a significant other or potential significant other. Nothing tests your ability to enjoy someone’s company like folding scallion dumplings with them for an hour or so.

On the left...the work of a perfectionist. On the right...functional.

The recipe itself is from Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, which is about her tenure as the New York Times’ restaurant critic and is worth reading if you’re at all curious about restaurants and how they work.

Aushak

Meat Sauce

  • 3 tbs vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 lb ground beef
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tbs tomato paste
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper

Heat oil in small skillet. Add onion and cook for 5 minutes until golden. Add beef, garlic, coriander, and ginger and cook, stirring often, about 3 minutes until meat is no longer red. Add water and cook, stirring often, until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste, stir, and cook another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Yogurt Sauce

  • 1 cup full-fat yogurt 
  • 1 tbs minced garlic
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Blend ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Dumplings

  • 2 bunches scallions, green parts only, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 25-30 wonton wrappers

Combine ingredients in a small bowl. Lay 1 tsp mixture in center of each wrapper and moisten edge. Fold over and press edges to make semicircles if your wrappers are round, or triangles if square. 

Heat 3 quarts salted water in a large pot. When boiling, add dumplings and cook for 5 minutes.

To Assemble;

Spoon 1/4 cup yogurt sauce onto a serving dish and cover with dumplings. Spoon remaining yogurt sauce on top and garnish with chopped fresh mint. Spoon meat sauce all around, and serve at once.

If I had a signature dish, this’d be it. The General and I have a long history.

My hometown of Spokane, Washington, was not exactly a culinary melting pot in the Mid ’80s. While there were several Chinese restaurants, they were essentially interchangeable having gotten most of their menu items from Leann Chin’s book (the best of this group, the Tungloon Garden, is still in business and still makes the best bulgogi to be found outside a Korean eatery). Then along came the China Best, our first “high class” Chinese restaurant, and on their menu was an item called “General Tso’s Chicken”.

This was a big deal for us. General Tso’s work was pretty much unknown in Eastern Washington and the China Best rose to fame very quickly on its strength. Quite honestly, it’s hands down the best General Tso’s I’ve ever eaten anywhere…and I’ve lived in two cities with Chinatowns.

The history of General Tso and his Chicken (which is really about as Chinese as the Hamburger is German) makes for interesting reading. When I want to make people laugh at my history nerdiness I call it “General Tso’s Taiping-Quelling Ever-Victorious Chicken.

Sadly, the China Best is no more, but they did have the decency to reveal their General Tso’s recipe in Spokane Cooks! Northwest, which is like a snapshot of the Spokane restaurant scene in the ’80s. I carried it on an index card all the way through college and grad school, and I now present it here, updated and tweaked:

General Tso’s Taiping-Quelling Ever-Victorious Chicken (China Best Style)

  • 4 skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite size pieces
  • 4 scallions, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp chopped garlic
  • 1/2 tsp chopped ginger
  • 2 tbs soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon shaoxing rice wine (find at Asian market or substitute dry sherry if desperate)
  • 1 tbs chinkiang vinegar (this is a dark, strong vinegar you can also find at your Asian market. You can try white vinegar, but the taste won’t be anything near the same)
  • 1 tsp chili sauce (use more or less depending on your heat tolerance)
  • 1 small handful dried hot chili peppers (these are for color and are optional)
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 10 tbs cooking oil (peanut preferred)
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Marinade:

  • 4 tbs soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper

Mix marinade ingredients, and marinate chicken pieces for 1 hour. Heat 8 tbs cooking oil in a wok or heavy saute pan and stir-fry marinated chicken for 8-10 minutes. Remove from wok, set aside, and clean wok for next step.

Add 2 tbs oil to clean wok. Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, chili sauce, dried chilies, salt, pepper, sugar, and scallions and stir fry for another minute or so, until the scallions just begin to change color. Add chicken back into wok and mix with sauce. Remove from heat and sprinkle on sesame oil before serving.

One nice thing about this recipe is that the chicken isn’t deep-fried first so you can at least pretend it’s healthy to your friends. I was actually completely unaware that General Tso’s is normally breaded until I went off to college in Milwaukee….and the first time I ordered it I thought I’d gotten Sweet and Sour Chicken accidentally instead. The Chinese restaurant people had a good long laugh when i went back to complain.