That Which is Bread

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah

Category: Strict Fast

Stir-Fry 101

I’ve been enjoying Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop’s book on everyday Chinese cooking, and as a result we’ve been eating more stir-fried meals. It’s very easy to whip up a stir-fry that tastes authentically Chinese, but you have to know a few things. Here’s a very general outline.

You’ll need a decent-sized skillet. A wok is perfect if you have one, but a regular western-style skillet works fine if you don’t overfill it.

Before you start frying, cut up your vegetables (and tofu if you’re using it) into bite-sized pieces. Some hard vegetables like broccoli won’t cook adequately in the few minutes they spend in the skillet, so it’s good to pre-cook them quickly. If you’re using broccoli pieces, for example, put them in a pot of boiling salted water for a few minutes; remove them while they’re still bright green.

Pour a generous amount of cooking oil — a couple of Tablespoons or more — in the skillet and turn the heat under the skillet to medium-high or hotter. (Note: if you avoid oil during the fast, Chinese cooking is probably not for you; it makes generous use of oil.). Peanut oil is traditional in Chinese cooking, and has a distinctive, if very mild, flavor. But any standard cooking oil will do.

Finely chop a couple of cloves of garlic and a comparable amount of fresh ginger. Work fast so the oil doesn’t start to smoke. If you don’t think you can work that fast, cut up the garlic and ginger before you turn on the burner.

When the oil is hot (a small piece of food sizzles when you drop it in the oil), toss in the garlic and ginger and stir them into the oil. If you like spicy food, throw in a big pinch of red pepper flakes too (or use some hot pepper as one of your vegetables). Let them cook briefly, just until you can smell their aroma. Watch the garlic like a hawk: it will brown very quickly in the hot oil, and burnt garlic has a very unpleasant taste. Next, toss in the rest of your vegetables. Stir them constantly for the few minutes that it will take for them to cook. Taste little pieces as you go to decide when the vegetables are cooked; you’ll quickly get a feel for how long it takes.

Remove the skillet from the heat, stir in soy sauce to taste, and you’re done. You can also stir in a small amount, maybe a teaspoon, of sesame oil. Don’t use sesame oil as your cooking oil: it’s expensive and the flavor will in my opinion be too strong. I think it works best in small amounts as a flavoring.

Serve over rice or noodles. Eat with chopsticks if you know how.

On rice and noodles: Rice is more popular in southern China, noodles in the north. If your supermarket has an “ethnic foods” section you can probably find several kinds of authentic Chinese noodles there. Wheat-based noodles are a popular variety, and for the life of me I can’t see how they’re different from spaghetti, so spaghetti is what I use, pre-tossed with a dash of sesame oil.

On green onions/scallions: These are a mainstay of Chinese cookery. If you use them in your stir-fry, cut them up and reserve them till near the end of cooking. When the rest of the vegetables are partly cooked, toss in the onions, stir them in and let them cook just until they’re not completely raw.

Spicy Potatoes and Peas

Recently we found ourselves with a lot of potatoes in the house, so let’s enjoy them, shall we?
This is a generalization of an Arthur Schwartz recipe, from his What to Cook: When You Think There’s Nothing in the House to Eat, which I’ve praised before and am happy to praise again.

The general idea is this:
• In a pot, make a spicy tomato sauce;
• Cook some sliced potatoes in the sauce;
• Add some frozen peas at the end, cook them just enough.

Here are the details for this very simple, tasty meal:

In a decent-sized saucepan, heat several tablespoons of oil. Add:
• 1 Tablespoon chopped ginger;
• 1 onion, finely chopped;
• 2 Tablespoons curry powder;
• 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or a generous squirt of Sriracha sauce;
• A couple of cloves of garlic, finely chopped.

If you’re in a really big hurry, the onion and garlic could be skipped.

Let this sizzle at medium heat until the onion is transparent. Or, turn the heat down and cook it very gently unti the onion is nice and brown.

Make a tomato sauce, in one of several ways:
• Add a couple of Tablespoons of tomato paste and maybe 1 1/2 cups of water, mix well; OR
• Add a large can of tomatoes and simmer until it’s broken down into a sauce-like consistency; OR
• Add about 1 1/2 cups of bottled spaghetti sauce.

Let the sauce simmer gently.
While it’s simmering, cut up about 4 medium-sized potatoes into sticks, about the shape of fat french fries.

Throw the potatoes into the sauce, put a lid on the pot, and simmer gently for about 15 minutes until the potatoes are tender.

Add about 2 cups of frozen peas, or one whole 10-ounce package. Cover and return to a simmer. Cook just until the peas are tender, no more than a minute.

Serve! If you have it, you can top with fresh chopped parsley or mint. If you’ve done this right, it won’t be one big pot of (tasty!) mush, but a pretty bowl of potato sticks and bright green peas in a red tomato sauce. Mmmmmm…

Are potatoes evil? Some “experts” say that potatoes, along with white rice and white flour, are harmful because they have a high glycemic index. (They can’t say that potatoes are highly processed, can they?) I’m not so sure about this glycemic index business. The people of southeast Asia subsist on white rice (bad, supposedly) with various toppings, and you’d have to travel far to find a fat or diabetic person in some Burmese village. So, for now, we follow the age-old advice to eat sparingly or inexpensive, close-to-the-earth foods — such as potatoes.

Little-known fact: Celery is a vegetable

We tend to think of celery as little more than a source of crunchiness in salads, but it is in fact a vegetable.

Today I was looking through the refrigerator and found that, like many refrigerators, it had a half-used, wilted bunch of celery lurking in the bottom of the crisper.

Since something had to be done with it, I chopped the celery up along with an onion, put the mixture in a skillet along with a few spoonfuls of canned tomato, added some soy sauce and pepper. I kept the skillet hot until the onions were transparent and everything was sizzling nicely, then turned the heat to low, covered the skillet and went away for about 20 minutes. When I came back the mixture was nicely cooked. The vegetables had given off quite a lot of juice, so I turned the heat up again and stirred them, uncovered, until the liquid had mostly cooked away. Then I served the mixture over rice. Very tasty!

And there, in narrative form, is a recipe for Hot Celery Lunch.

Lentil-Potato salad

This is freely adapted from a Jacques Pepin recipe. I think these French peasant-y dishes are what he does best.
I add substantially more chopped fresh herbs than JP does; they taste good and, just as importantly, by this time in Lent we’re getting tired of meals that are all various shades of brown, so the bright green herbs are cheering.
Good olive oil makes a big difference to the flavor, though it’s still good with standard vegetable oil. You might want to think about saving this for an olive-oil day.

Put 4 potatoes (not Idahos) in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to very low and simmer them until done, about 1/2 hour. Drain them and let them cool.

At the same time, put 3/4 cup lentils in a saucepan with about 3 cups water. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down, and let them simmer for about 30-45 minutes, until tender. Take them off the heat and let them cool. When they’re lukewarm, drain off any excess liquid.

Slice the potatoes about 1/2 inch thick and put them in a large bowl with the lentils.

Mix in:

  • One onion, finely chopped
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • Fresh herbs, finely chopped, at least a cup. I used parsley, basil and rosemary.
  • 1/4 cup olive or other oil
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar or wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly-ground pepper

Gently toss it all together. Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed. It improves if it’s allowed to sit for awhile: the onion and garlic have a chance to mellow and impart their flavor to the rest of the dish.

They only want you to think it’s hard

Polenta is delicious, versatile and easy to make. Some older cookbooks make polenta prep sound like a long, laborious process involving constant stirring for hours. Don’t be fooled: it’s easy. Here’s how.

If you’re lucky, your supermarket will sell actual polenta, which is coarsely-ground cornmeal and gives a slightly more interesting texture. If they don’t have it, regular yellow cornmeal works fine and tastes the same. Do not get “Instant Polenta”. Make any amount you want, just preserve a 4-to-1 ratio of water to cornmeal. I’ve seen recipes that stretch this ratio to 5-to-1; I haven’t tried it, but you can. This example uses 2 cups of water.

  • Measure out 2 cups of cold water.
  • Put 1/2 cup cornmeal in a saucepan with a generous pinch of salt.
  • Pour a small amount of the water in the pot. Stir until the cornmeal is all wetted. Mash with a fork until there are no lumps, adding a bit more water as you go. When you have a lump-less slurry of cornmeal (this will only take about 30 seconds), stir in the rest of the water.
  • Turn on the heat  under the saucepan and bring the mixture to a full boil, stirring it regularly. When it comes to a boil it will quickly start to thicken. Be careful at this point; it tends to give off volcanic splatters of hot cornmeal.
  • As soon as the mixture has reached a full boil, cover and turn off the heat. Wait about 10 minutes. Polenta!

If this weren’t about fasting, you’d stir in a big hunk of butter and a handful of grated cheese before setting the polenta to cool, and it would be delicious. But it’s pretty good served straight.

While it’s still hot, it makes a good breakfast cereal. After it sits for awhile, it will set into a solid mass: if you’re planning to let it set, pour it into a small greased loaf pan while it’s still hot. Once it’s set, you can cut it in slices which you can re-heat with some tomato sauce on top, or you can fry it: this is what southerners poetically call “fried mush”. Poor-people food for sure, but that’s what you want during a fast, isn’t it?

To boost the flavor while keeping it Lenten, here are a couple of things you can do. While it’s cooking, you can stir in a big pinch of red pepper flakes, curry powder or chili powder.  If you’re more the sweet-tooth type, stir in some brown sugar. To give a good savory flavor, finely chop an onion, brown it in some oil in a saucepan, then add the cornmeal and proceed as above.


This Barley-Mushroom Pilaf has an earthy, eastern-European vibe to it. It’s good by itself for lunch, and with some vegetables and a salad would be family meal.

  • An onion, sliced
  • A carrot, sliced
  • Some mushrooms, sliced
  • A couple of cloves of garlic, sliced
  • salt & pepper
  • 1/3 cup barley
  • 2 cups water.

In a saucepan, saute the onion, carrot and mushrooms in a little oil until the onions start to brown. Add the garlic and keep sauteeing until the garlic just starts to brown.
Add water, barley, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil. Stir well, then turn down to a simmer. Let it simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes.
Allow it to cool a bit before serving.

Primal, eh?  When I made this, I added a few red pepper flakes and a teaspoon of curry powder, which disrupts the eastern-European vibe but tastes excellent.



No-boil pasta bake

This started out as a chicken-and-cheese dish (very good!) that we heavily modified for Lent. It’s still very good, and just involves stirring a bunch of things together in a casserole dish — you don’t have to pre-cook the pasta, which is sort of cool. As always, most of the ingredients are negotiable; modify to suit your own tastes.

Pre-heat the oven to 400°.

In a dutch oven or other lidded, oven-safe vessel, stir together:

  • 8 oz. of your favorite pasta: macaroni etc. (we’ve been using penne).
  • 1 15-oz. can of diced tomatoes, with juices.
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • several cloves of garlic, chopped
  • basil and/or oregano, dried or fresh
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • bell pepper, chopped (we often use a bagged frozen “pepper and onion” mix from the supermarket. Thaw it first.)
  • Several mushrooms, sliced.
  • 2 cups water
  • A few dashes of  hot sauce if you want it spicy

Bake, covered, for one hour.

That’s it. It may look a little soupy when it comes out of the oven, but as it cools it will set nicely. With a good salad, it’s a meal.

Roasted Cabbage with Lemon Juice

A friend posted this on Facebook from the Kalyn’s Kitchen blog. We haven’t even tried it yet, but it’s so obviously good that I’m posting it right now. We’ll be eating it next time we have a cabbage in the house.

Preheat oven to 450°.

Cut a whole cabbage into 8 equal-sized wedges. Arrange them in one layer in a roasting pan.

Whisk together 2 Tbsp oil (olive, sesame, canola…) and 2–3 Tbsp lemon juice. Brush the mixture onto the exposed sides of the cabbage wedges, then generously salt and pepper them. Turn the wedges over and repeat.

Roast for about 15 minutes, until the sides touching the pan have browned. Turn the wedges over and roast for another 10—15 minutes.



Fried Rice

This is so simple it could hardly be called a recipe, but it’s tasty. We eat it often. The only caveat: do not use freshly-cooked rice; day-old rice works much better. In Chinese households, this is a standard way to use leftover rice.

Brown rice and white rice work equally well, since they’re already cooked. No quantities are given for the rice or vegetables: they don’t matter. Use what you have, or what will fit comfortably in the pan.

In a large frying pan, heat up some sliced garlic, some sliced ginger, some chopped onion, and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes in several Tablespoons of oil (we add some sesame oil for flavor). Fry the mixture at medium heat until the garlic has just begun to turn brown. If you want a blander or quicker dish, you can skip this step and just heat some oil in the pan.

Turn up the heat (to fairly high) and add chopped vegetables: broccoli, chopped carrots, chopped cabbage, peas, whatever. You may want to use pre-cooked vegetables if you’re adding something that won’t cook in a few minutes.

Add cooked rice. Drizzle some soy sauce over the mixture. While it’s cooking, stir well so the rice gets lightly coated with oil. Keep cooking and stirring till the rice shows some signs of browning.


Black Bean Chili

Our first official Lenten supper this year was this black bean chili on rice with a salad. We cook some sort of chili several times during Lent, and one pot is usually good for a couple of meals. If you don’t enjoy the asphalt-like appearance of cooked black beans, pinto beans work well too.

This recipe starts with dry beans, which is how we always do it. Cooking beans in the oven is the way to go — you don’t have to watch the beans constantly to make sure they’re not burning.

Preheat the oven to 325°.

In a saucepan, cover 2 cups dried black beans with water (water should be about an inch over the beans) and bring to a boil. Let them simmer for a few minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.

In a dutch oven (or other lidded pot that can safely go in the oven) combine:

  • 1 chopped onion
  • several chopped cloves of garlic (to taste)
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp salt
  • at least a tablespoon of chili powder
  • 1 15-oz can diced tomatoes
  • a couple of bell peppers, chopped (note: we often use a bagged frozen “pepper and onion mix” sold at our supermarket)
  • several dashes of your favorite hot sauce (we use Tapatio)

Stir in the beans, using enough of their cooking liquid to cover all the ingredients about 1/2 inch deep in liquid. Cover the pot and put it in the oven. The beans may take several hours to cook fully. Every hour or so, stir the pot and make sure the beans are barely covered with liquid. You’ll probably have to add some water. Taste a couple of beans to see if they’re soft; when they’re soft, you’re done.

Like most seasoned dishes, this tastes best when it’s been allowed to sit for awhile.

We have a 3-quart lidded metal pot with metal handles, which we can use to boil the beans, then add the other ingredients, then put the whole thing in the oven, which saves washing a pot.

A warning about beans. Looking at the above recipe, you may be thinking, “Why not do it in a Crock-pot?” That’s a great idea. You could put everything together, start it cooking, and mostly ignore it for the rest of the day.
The warning: Some varieties of beans are toxic if they’re not brought to a full boil for several minutes, and slow-cookers won’t really do the job. Be sure to boil the beans for a few minutes first.