Arcane Cuisine

April 17, 2017

I can’t get enough of  Chinese Imperial Cuisines and Eating Secrets , which chronicles a cuisine that is almost unimaginably luxurious. The book not only tells you about the vast range of exotic ingredients consumed by the emperors of yore, it also tells you how to cook them.  Should you be seeking suggestions for ways to use your rhinoceros meat, this cookbook has you covered. Or perhaps you need a recipe for those camel paws you found in the supermarket the other day? This recipe calls for four.

Here’s something relatively simple; it’s one of my favorite Chinese dishes, but I had no idea its roots were so regal.

“Streaky pork” must refer to pork belly. And “potherb mustard” is also called mizuna. Many recipes insist on using preserved greens instead of fresh ones. (If you can’t find preserved mizuna, I’d venture that any kind of pickled mustard would work well; try to get the kind that includes the leaves along with the root.)

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The Most Luxurious Cuisine Ever

April 13, 2017

Imperial cuisine, the ne plus ultra of the Chinese canon, was exclusively reserved for emperors.  There has never been a more luxurious kind of cooking. It was meant to showcase the prime offerings of a vast and varied country, including staples like shark lips, rhinoceros, deer penis and dehydrated and fried beaver skin. In some cases, an emperor wouldn’t taste the same dish twice in his (or her, more rarely) entire lifetime.

The remarkable creativity of the imperial kitchens, and their sprawling structure, owed much to the fact that emperors commonly recruited chefs from around the country. This meant that the finest Sichuan cooks worked alongside the finest chefs from Guangdong, Shanghai, Hunan….. Through several dynasties of massive societal change, these cooks helped create one of the most impressive catalogs of food the world has ever seen.

As China has become more prosperous there’s been renewed interest in this once-hidden cuisine. If you’re as fascinated by this food as I am,  Chinese Imperial Cuisines and Eating Secrets is a good starting place. It begins with this incredible interview with relatives of Puyi, the last emperor of China; although the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, he continued to be royally served throughout the 1920s. This will give you a sense of the sheer grandeur of these meals: 

The brothers describe Empress Dowager Cixi’s meals:

(Here’s Cixi) 

And here’s a taste of the whimsy of this food. 

No doubt simplified for the home cook.

Tomorrow, something I’ll actually try at home. Along with something I definitely won’t.



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Gorgeous Broth

April 11, 2017

Here’s another piece from the amazing Chinese food encyclopedia I wrote about a few days ago.

This is one of my favorite Chinese preparations: simple greens cooked in broth. But as you’ll see, the simplicity of this dish belies an artful process: slow and patient stock making that results in a crystal clear broth bursting with deep, deep flavor. (I have to admit that the recipe reminds me a bit of the famous seventeenth century French chef Francois Vatel, who once offered to reduce a herd of cattle to a thimble of broth.)

But to really flex your stock making might, most of us require a  few more specifics.

To find them I consulted Fuchsia Dunlop. She always delivers.

In Land of Plenty, her classic English-language Sichuan cookbook, she writes:

 Sichuanese cooks clarify their stocks by adding pastes made from raw meat, which rise to the surface, collecting the scum. The classic method is first to use a “red paste” made from minced pork mixed with an approximately equal quantity of water, and then a “white paste” made from chicken breasts, again pummeled to a paste and mixed with an approximately equal quantity of water. The cooked pork paste is discarded, but the cooked chicken breast mixture can be tied up with cheesecloth and left in the clarified stock for another hour, at 200 degrees fahrenheit, to improve and clarify the liquid and its flavor. Straining the cooked stock through cheesecloth, however, gives a perfectly respectable result and is the method I use at home. 

Here’s her recipe for “Banquet Stock,”

And here’s the Chinese original from the Chinese Encyclopedia.  You’ll be happy to know it’s no more specific than the English translation.

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Pretty in Pink: Deviled Eggs

April 9, 2017

Spring at last. Which means the chickens are beginning to lay eggs again.  Which means it’s deviled egg season.

Before you begin, a little digression on hard-boiling eggs.

When eggs are new, the membrane beneath the shell sticks tightly to its shell, making peeling them a serious challenge. As eggs age, the protective coating on the shell becomes porous and begins to absorb air making the whites less acetic. (This is why the whites of freshly laid eggs are cloudy; as they absorb air they lose some of the carbon dioxide in the albumen, the ph rises, and the whites become clearer.)

But while the egg whites are losing their acidity, they are also getting thinner, meaning that the yolk is moving farther from the center. So if you’re intent on perfect deviled eggs, begin with organic, new-laid eggs but put them in the refrigerator for a week and store them on their sides.

Bring the eggs to room temperature before cooking. This will prevent cracking.


Put your eggs in a pot that will hold them in a single layer, so that they cook evenly. Cover them with cold water and raise it quickly just to a boil.  Cover the pot, turn off the heat and let the eggs sit for 12 minutes.

Chill the eggs, immediately, in a bowl of ice water.  This will prevent the dread green circle around the outside of the yolk, which occurs because the iron in the yolk reacts with the sulfur in the white when the temperature of the egg reaches 158° F.  Although perfectly harmless, it lends your deviled eggs a slightly ghoulish air.

If you don’t want to wait a week, steam your eggs.  It’s easy. Put them in a steamer (or a colander over a big pot), and steam them for twenty minutes. Plunk them into an ice water bath until they’re cool enough to handle. Roll on the counter.  The shells will peel right off.


Pink Deviled Eggs

Shopping list: 1 jar pickled beets, Sriracha sauce, sweet pickle.

Staples: 1 dozen eggs, mustard, mayonnaise, salt pepper,

Makes 1 dozen.

Once your eggs are cooked and peeled, put the whole eggs into a bowl with the juice from a can of pickled beets; add a bit of water if the eggs aren’t completely covered.

Before long the eggs will begin to turn a vibrant shade of pink. Leave them in the refrigerator overnight, and the whites will be the most beautiful color, a dazzling contrast to the marigold color of the yolks. (Leave them in the beet juice for more than 18 hours, however, and the yolks will turn pink as well.)

Cut the eggs in half lengthwise, then slice a  bit off the bottom of the white of each half so they won’t wobble on the plate.  It make them considerably easier to fill.

Remove the yolks and mash with  mayonnaise, a bit of mustard, and salt and pepper.  Add a splash of Sriracha for heat.  If you want truly etherial tenderness, whip the filling in a food processor; it will make it smoother.  Then pile the deviled yolks back into the pink shells. (A pastry tube makes this easier.) At the end, just for color, top each one with a little triangle of sweet pickle or a bit of sliced chile pepper. 

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California Dreaming

April 6, 2017

Last night I dreamed of …. not Manderly, but the incredible yellowtail and uni tacos at Holbox, a small perfect seafood stand in the La Paloma Market near USC.

Little wonder; I’m not in LA anymore, but in the cold, gray Berkshires where it’s mud season and the skies drip endless rain. Of course I’m thinking about this tropical dream of a dish: it’s rare to find such exquisite balance in a simple seafood dish. Every element here, from the smooth avocado to the chewy little nubbins of fish and the marvelously seductive sea urchin adds a different element, which is pulled together by the sharp, fruity bite of the chile morita.

There are lots of other dishes to love here.  Blood clams, almost scary in their red-rimmed shells, but incredibly fresh and delicious. Giant oysters. Wonderful shrimp cocktails, piled into tall glasses like savory sundaes.  And the most delicious surf clams, sliced into thin ribbons and swirled in bitter orange juice.  If you love the crisp crunch of giant clams at sushi bars, you’ll love this.

But when I dream, it’s the uni-yellowtail tacos I think of. I may just have to go back to LA…..


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