From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

I have MOVED!!!

Dear Readers,

Due to a desire to not infringe on Martin Yan's copyright of "Yan Can Cook" I have moved the blog to its own website. 

Please feel free to visit me at for future postings.  Full functionality of the website should be up soon, and there are more easy-to-navigate menus available to take you through the maze of foods and ponderings.

The next food post will be up shortly, probably some time this afternoon.

Until Then,  Good Eating, Friends...

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Healthy Delights

Hmm... "It came down to time and money. No excuses to not cook a great meal, or have a dinner party."  Sage advice given, when inquiring about her reason for writing.

"What are we doing for dinner tonight?"

"um... I have no idea..."  Typical issue faced by my family, and those around us.  The end result is usually the nearest drive-thru quick-service food establishment, with nowhere near the necessary nutritional value that families these days need.

After having a long conversation with Christina, fellow Foodie and accomplished writer whom I have known for nearly 30 years, I realized that, despite all appearances, we, like most others, already have dinner at the house.  It is simply going to be a matter of browsing the shelves and puting the good stuff together again.  (Hence the whole ability to "wing it" that drives my wife nuts.

"You're demystifying Asian cooking. Why order out/in when you can put it together just as easily?  Basic ingredients at home, that you keep stocked, allow you to make it healthier AND just as fast as delivery.

Without having to tip."

I love it.  So Stir Fry it is tonight, quick, healthy and easy to do, with what we have. (I think.  I don't remember what we have in the pantry, since I inadvertantly made 2 planned meals into one last night.)

If you are wondering, the Crispy Crysanthemum Fish with Sweet and Sour Sauce was a success, and it paired well with the Black Pepper Shrimp.  Both the girls loved it.  That speaks volumes as far as I am concerned.

Now, it's just a matter of doing something that everyone will enjoy tonight.  Ideas?

"Make sure people know how awful the calories are in delivery. Making it at home makes it edible and not something you'll have to walk to California to burn off.

Losing weight never goes out of style.

 So, tell that tidbit to Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers- who are showing vast gains in revenues this year- even in a recession."  Yeah, I am sure they know, even though the Weight Watcher's store at the mall closed recently.

Most Americans eat some form of Chinese foods ordered from restaurants. This ethnic cuisine is generally regarded as healthy, however, it has always been difficult to determine actual values in a meal, because so many portions differ by restaurant, based on serving size, ingredients and even packaging. 

For example,  my General Tsao's Chicken is typically made with dark meat, but the Kung Pao Chicken is made with white, thereby increasing the fat content in the General Tsao's Chicken.  Amazingly enough, the fat content in the General's Chicken is higher than that of my Broccoli Beef, which is made with Flank Steak.  Compared to hamburgers and pizza, the Chinese entrees are low in fat and in saturated fat and high in protein and in carbohydrate amounts. So, do not forget to eat your Chinese entrees with a good-sized portion of steamed white rice. That enhances their nutritional quality.  Vegetable oil contributes most of the calories in Chinese restaurant food where approximately one-quarter of the calories are derived from fat. Just about half (49%) of calories in frozen Chinese entrees, hamburgers and pizza are derived from fat.  When Chinese Restaurant entrees are consumed with equal or double portions of steamed rice as Chinese people would eat them, the nutritional quality becomes more favorable. Chinese restaurant food has about four to seven percent of its calories coming from saturated fat compared to around one-quarter of the saturated fat (17 to 28%) in pizza and hamburgers, respectively. In addition, frozen Chinese entrees are low in cholesterol. Also, sodium and cholesterol amounts are lower in Chinese restaurant food than they are in almost all hamburgers. Not only that, but hamburgers are customarily consumed with French fries and perhaps a milk shake. Pizza, on the other hand, is low in cholesterol but relatively high in sodium.  And the favorite drink to wash pizza down with? Beer.  The second worst empty calorie diet buster.

The highly touted sporting event of the year is coming up in about two weeks, and that special day results the highest volume of pizzas made, delivered and consumed for the entire year.  The only food service industry that fares as well is that of the Chicken Wing business. 

Here’s the problem: I like to eat and I like to cook — but I have not got room in my closet for two sets of clothing ('short' and 'portly short'), anyway. Dieting is a problem. Most diets are utterly unrewarding. Weight loss is difficult to achieve and more difficult to recover, after the inevitable relapse. Frankly, it includes meals that range from boring to downright unappetizing.

The answer appears to be a low-carbohydrate diet.  However, it is extremely impractical as an attempted application in Asian Cuisine (or any other cuisine that I may love at any given moment.)  However, I am generally not convinced about dieting programs even though people around me have been nagging me about my near-rotundness for years. (Relax, ladies, as my daughter said,  I am a 3-liter bottle away from those 6-pack abs I have been striving for.)  I have tried various programs and they simply have not achieved the requisite result.

I looked the Atkins diet up on the web. The Atkins establishment maintains a substantial web presence at The late Dr. Atkins and his colleagues have decided not to be greedy; the basics of the program are all there, along with supporting documentation for the ‘how-it-works’ part. The best for me: All the things I like to cook (stuff my wife tells me has to be unhealthy, it tastes so good) fits right into the program.

There are sacrifices, to be sure: I am more than mildly fond of crusty sourdough breads, crépes filled with currant jelly, pasta with various sauces (my wife makes a garlic caesar sauce that surpasses most stuff I ever had in Europe). This diet even allows an occasional sin--and tells how to fit it in.

But: A nice hamburger de luxe (cut in a little kosher salt, some freshly ground pepper and some minced shallot and grill) with a dollop of homemade sauce béarnaise is compensation. 

OK, so there is a program that works. But is it for me, as Chinese food is my favorite? I live in Texas, about a 2 hour drive from Chinatown-in Houston  (or a good 1900 miles from San Francisco.)  This distance makes it impractical to visit and eat someone else's cooking, leaving me to create my own concoctions and creations.  Can one eat a good range of Chinese dishes if following this low carbohydrate dietary regimen?

After careful consideration--including substantial risk to my now-somewhat-increased waistline (about two inches thus far…) in the experimental phase, it seems that many of my favorites fall right in line. Those that do not--well, one cannot appreciate virtue without sinning occasionally.

Cooking Chinese-style at home is a challenge and impractical at best for the unseasoned cook. First, my stove’s burners simply do not generate the kind of heat a Chinese cook commonly uses. My stove at Chino's Cafe produced a much larger fire, to the tune of 90,000 btu's of roaring fire. Newer stoves seem worse than old ones, with their darned  built in regulators, but I do like my new stove’s enamel top, it is easy to clean but takes forever to heat a pan.

Second, most Chinese cooking involves techniques that create an aerosol of oil-laden steam. There can be oil on everything, impossible to clean, absent a really good range hood with a serious exhaust fan (my mom's old house had an exhaust fan that would do credit to some smaller restaurant kitchens in Chinatown-but was commonplace in Taipei). Then too, there are the ingredients. We live in Texas, and have only one Chinese-oriented supermarket, and it is too far away to make getting authentic ingredients more readily than some. But some of those things simply aren’t in the cards for low-carb cooking.

The practical solution?  The right assortment of vegetables, with the best accompaniment of seasonings and flavors.  As to vegetable flavorings: Onions, while wildly unpopular in my house are nice and shallots give more flavor-bang for the buck, I think. Small amounts of chives and the like work well, they add authenticity as well as intensity to foods. What else works well? Consider that quintessential Chinese food: Tofu. I am unsure what the Atkins folks think about it, but the labeling suggests it is about as low-carb as one might want, so tofu in reasonable portions, tofu is acceptable. I prefer mine firm and pressed over the usual softer types; I like the texture better and it holds up to the vigorous action that stir frying inflicts on it.  Some (but not all) Chinese grocers have this ready pressed; one can press it oneself, but the process is both tedious and not very successful. Commonly put up in shrink-wrap packages, I think one cake is enough per person, and I get two nice dishes from that amount.  Tofu is an acquired taste that has yet to establish itself as a popular flavor in our house. 

I could go on. The principles are clear, though: A low-carb Chinese diet is entirely possible. The range of possibilities is wide and varied. Where ingredient compromises must be made, they need not affect the resulting flavor. Simplifying tricks for a 'mixed kitchen' are eminently possible.  It is simply a matter of determining which flavor profiles will go over well in your house, then adhering to the regimen to achieve the desired result. 

Onwards towards a healthy meal.  Until Then, Good Eating, Friends...

Colin's Vegetarian Stir Fry
The beauty of this recipe is that the list of vegetables is not fixed.  It can be modified to your taste and personal preference. 


•3 tbsp hoisin sauce
•1 tbsp sesame oil+ 2 tbsp
•2 tbsp soy sauce + 2 tbsp
•1 tbsp rice vinegar
•2 tbsp sugar or liquid sweetener
•3/4 cup vegetable broth
•2 cloves garlic, minced
•1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
•1 tbsp corn starch
•3-4 green onions, chopped
•1 red or yellow bell pepper
•approx 2 cups broccoli, chopped
•1 cup sugar snap peas
•1 cup sliced carrots
•1 cup sliced mushrooms (shiitake are best)


In a small saucepan, whisk together hoisin sauce, 1 tbsp sesame oil, 2 tbsp soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, vegetable broth, garlic, ginger and corn starch over medium heat. Allow to simmer until mixture thickens, about 5-7 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside.

In a large wok or skillet, heat 2 tbsp sesame oil and toss in onions with 2 tbsp soy sauce until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add pepper and broccoli, carrots, mushrooms and sugar snap peas and stir-fry another 2-3 minutes.

Add sauce mixture to the stir-fry and combine well, allowing to cook another 2-3 minutes, until broccoli is done cooking.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Shrimp - Fried, Stir Fried, Honey'ed

Last week, I had forgotten to pack a lunch, and Gerry, my Maintenance Manager offered to take me to lunch.  Originally, I suggested McDonald's because it was cheap, quick and close.  Knowing that Gerry is not a burger guy, I was surprised when he readily agreed.

As we were heading out, he suggested a different option: Luby's Cafeteria.  Luby's offers a wide array of dishes to choose from, in a caferia style, but while it is a tasty option, it can be somewhat expensive.  I, not being a huge fan, asked if there was another option.  After a moment's thought, Gerry suggested the Fishland Fish Market on Walzem Road.  I have driven past the place on numerous occasions but had never dared venture inside.  I was, however, in the mood for something new, so off we went.

As we approached the restaurant, I peered into the windows and saw that there were only a couple of seats left for dining, in a dining room meant for 8 people max.  (The best bet would have been to call the order in and have it made to-go, which maybe I will do next time.)  The restaurant was filled with the aroma of frying oil and seafood (thankfully) and the dull roar of the people waiting for their food as well as the two Asian ladies cooking it. 

I ordered the 2 item combo of Fried Oysters and Fried Shrimp, and Gerry ordered the Fried Fish (catfish, although tilapia was an option) and Shrimp.  The food arrived rather quickly, though we did see a gentleman who ordered nearly $80 worth of food have to wait for 45 minutes.  With the meal came a small garden salad, fries and hushpuppies.

Prior to coming to Texas, I had absolutely no idea what a hushpuppy was.  I thought they were a kind of slipper or house shoe that one was to wear around the house.  Turns out they are a mealy version of doughnut holes, with a crispy crust and hot flavorful breading.  (At one point, while up in Dallas working with Michael Carter, I came up with a great Hushpuppy Restaurant concept, featuring jalapeno bread hushpuppies, breakfast bacon hushpuppies, and even a dessert style option.)

The fries were hot, crunchy and tasty.  It was clear to me that the ladies know there stuff, because there was not a hint of fish flavor in the fries.  Clearly they have the foresight to know better than to use the same fryer for fish as they do their fries or onion rings or hushpuppies.  The shrimp?  Very tasty, and perfectly cooked, with the cornmeal crust giving them a good crunch at first bite.  And the oysters? Wonderful.  True flavor, and well seasoned.  It was definitely a good idea, and amazingly, I left the place satisfied, and not hungry. 

Would we be able to get a fish-fry type of meal of Asian design?  Probably not.  If anything, it would be a tempura style meal, with a Japanese influence.  One of my personal favorites is the Honey Walnut Prawns*, a dish with fried prawns and sweetened carmelized walnuts, made here in the states and definitely not native to China.  (The recipe uses mayonnaise, most definitely not of Asian descent.)

Sadly, while available in many of the Asian restaurants here in the states, and with exception to the coastal regions of China, seafood is not a prominently featured protein option on the Chinese menu.  Those positions of availability are filled by pork and chicken, then followed by beef and shrimp.  This has created the diverse recipes that many of  the restaurants offer.  In manipulating the standard themes of protein, starch and sauce, menu items have begun to represent the local tastes that are the region. 

This complex of interrelated features of Chinese food can be described as the Chinese fan-ts'ai principle. ("Fan" is the standard word for grain or rice, and "ts'ai" describes meats and vegetables.)  Send a Chinese cook into an American kitchen, given Chinese or American ingredients, and he or she will (a) prepare an adequate amount of fan, (b) cut up the ingredients and mix them up in various combinations, and (c) cook the ingredients into several dishes and, perhaps, a soup. Given the right ingredients, the "Chineseness" of the meal would increase, but even with entirely native American ingredients and cooked in American utensils, it is still a Chinese meal.   Given this flexibility and adaptability, the distinctive Asian flavors, appearances and taste do not depend on actual or specific ingredients. 

As a result, even if I were to decide to cook a specific "Chinese Recipe" for shrimp, I would still be able to modify it in my own way, adhering to the principles of cooking in the "Chinese Style" and produce a tasty "Chinese Meal."  To qualify as a true Chinese Gentleman, in the country itself, I would have to be able to demonstrate knowledge and skill pertaining to food and drink.  As a member of the race of peoples who have clearly been preoccupied with the art of dining, food and eating, I can say with authority that in this facet of our lives, China has definitely shown more inventiveness than any other nation.  hmm... wonder what I should do tonight...  I do know that shrimp is on the menu... 

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends...

Crispy Tea Shrimp


12 large shrimp

dash of coarse salt

1 teaspoon Chinese cooking wine or sherry

1 teaspoon minced green scallion

1/2 teaspoon minced ginger

2 teaspoons white tea leaves, ground fine

1 egg

3 Tablespoons plain or tapioca flour

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 cup corn oil


1. Shell and devein the shrimp, then mix them with the salt, rice wine, scallion, ginger, tea leaves, egg, flour, and sesame oil. Let them marinate about ten minutes.

2. Heat oil. Remove a shrimp from the batter mixture and deep fry for one minute. Do not fry more than a few at a time. Drain on paper towels. Repeat until done, and when all are fried, serve.

*Honey Walnut Prawns


1 lb of Large Shrimps, peeled and deveined

1/2 cup Walnuts

5 cups Water

1 cup Sugar

2 cups Oil

1/2 cup Cornstarch

1/2 cup Egg whites

2 Tbs Honey

3 Tbs Mayonnaise

1 Tbs Fresh lemon juice

1/2 Tbs Condensed milk

1/2 cup Oil

1. Rinse walnuts, then boil in 5 cups water, continually changing water until clear.

2. When clear, boil with sugar until sugar dissolves.

3. Heat 2 cups oil until almost smoking, then deep fry walnuts until they're shiny and brown, no longer golden.

4. Place walnuts to cookie sheet, let cool.

5. Mix cornstarch and egg whites together to form a thick, sticky texture and mix well with Shrimp. Set aside. Mix honey, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and condensed milk in a medium bowl until smooth.

6. Heat oil until boiling, then deep fry the Shrimp until golden brown.

7. Drain, then fold in honey mayonnaise mixture. Mix well, sprinkle with walnuts, and arrange on platter

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Up in Smoke, Texas Barbecue Style

Picture this:

It is Friday evening, I have just gotten home, and I am getting ready to start cooking dinner.  I have gathered the primary ingredients and have gotten my younger daughter to pull out the dishes and silverware that we will be needing, when the phone rings.

"Uncle David and Aunt Maryann want to know if we want to join them for dinner at the barbeque place down the street from their house."

How could I say no?  I enjoy dining with family,  and it seemed like a good idea to get together.  And as an added bonus? Barbeque.  Who doesn't like the smell of mesquite grilled brisket, or andouille sausage on a pit, or chicken quarters with a crispy skin, still sizzling when placed in front of you?  So, without further ado, off to Home of Da Smoke, in Adkins.

When you get there, the pitmaster squints through the smoke and nods in acknowledgement, then peers into the smoke as he opens the giant steel door. From your place in line, you watch him fork and flip the juicy, black beef briskets and sizzling pork loins.

Your heart beats faster as he opens a steel door to reveal a dozen sausage rings hissing and spitting in the thick white cloud.

Slowly, the sweet cloud of oak smoke makes its way to you, carrying with it the aroma of peppery beef, bacon-crisp pork, and juicy garlic sausage. Your mouth starts watering. You swallow hard. Your stomach rears back and lets out a growl. You're in a frenzy by the time you get to the head of the line, where the hot meats are being sliced and weighed. You order twice as much as you can eat. You carry it away on a sheet of butcher paper, with an extra sheet tucked underneath for a plate.


That is the kind of meal I LOVE, but sad to say, it was nowhere close to that kind of visit.   

Use to be, way back when, a party of 4 plus 2 kids would not have been able to find a table big enough without having to wait long.  The wait for the food was worth it, because it was always served piping hot and tasty.  That was then.  This is now. 

We found our table right away. (From all appearances, because Madi and I were the last ones there, and there were still plenty of tables available.)  We hemmed and hawed through the menu, which, strangely, had gone to a generic 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper in a sheet protector.  Far from the fancy menu with inserts that it used to be.  I ordered the 2 item combo with Ribs and Chicken, David glommed that idea off of me, Kim had double sausage, and Maryann had a brisket sandwich with bbq sauce on the side. 

(Now, ask Maryann what she originally wanted.  Oh. A hamburger.  Sure.  Why not?  Except for the simple fact that the place was OUT OF BURGERS!!)  What kind of barbeque joint worth its salt is out of burgers?

Oh well.  When the food arrived, the fries smelled good and were still hot.  Shoestrings, with a seasoned salt on them.  That was about where the good things stopped.  When I reached for the chicken, to start pulling some pieces off of it to share with Madision, it was cold.  Not lukewarm, cold. 


For those of you who really know me well, you already know that Hot food Hot, and Cold food Cold are very important tenets when it comes to serving food.  Especially when dealing with chicken and pork.  And I had both on my place. 

How does one politely ask a waitress who already does not seem to care too much about you or your visit to warm up the chicken? (Anybody seen the movie "Waiting?") Yeah, and by the way, David needs his cooked through as well.

Turns out that their microwave does a darned good job of heating chicken... because that is all they did.  Yup.  Fork still stuck in the chicken and all.  I guess I should have known that there was something amiss when I watched their cook pull the chicken out of the walk-in cooler and walk it to the back, where they then "cooked" it.

It is really too bad, because I am not a fan of slamming food establishments, but when such blatant mishandling of food that my family is going to eat goes on, sorry, folks, we will not be going back.

Trusted advice for a Barbeque  joint means that you will be getting flavorfull, stick-to-your-ribs food.  You want your first bite of beef brisket, smoked to an impossible tenderness over three days,and has no seasonings or spices during the smoking process, to assault your senses with unsullied flavor that pairs perfectly with the dark, sweet, house barbecue sauce served in a squeeze bottle.

There are many barbeque joints that I like to go to here in South Texas.  First off has to be Rudy's BBQ, where they advertise themselves as "The WORST bbq in Texas."  (That saying drives them to make darned sure they don't succeed in meeting that expectation.)  Their barbeque "sause" is available by the bottle, or the gallon, and it goes GREAT with virtually anything.  They also use Oak, as opposed to the majority of the joints that use mesquite.  They offer brisket, turkey, porkloin, chopped beef, spare ribs, baby back ribs, chicken and sausage, most in 1/2 lots, but also in sandwiches.  Then, they toss on a huge stack of white bread plus your choice of sides.  (Go with the creamed corn.  Have yet to taste  better.)

Second barbeque choice here would be... umm... umm... crap... dunno...  Strangely, while there are 73 different locations here in San Antonio, barbeque is not one of my favorite types of meals.  I REALLY have to be craving it, and that rarely happens.  When I do want it, I usually go for chicken, or maybe a sausage po' boy with sauce on the side. 

Welcome to Texas barbecue.

I often receive a derisive snort in response to my declaration that I am not a huge fan of Texas Barbeque.  Where did I go wrong?
Texans love to eat it. They love to make it. And they love to argue about it. It has taken such a stand in the culinary world to merit its own reality cooking show on The Learning Channel.  There are competing theories on the etymology, the definition of the word, and on those characteristics that make it uniquely Texan. Texans don't agree on the kind of wood, the need for sauce, the cut of meat, or which part of the state does it best. And Texabs all have their favorite pit bosses. But regardless of what Texans believe, we can all agree that non-Texans don't understand it.

Traditional barbecue definitions don't make sense here. "Barbecue is always served with a distinctive sauce," say some. Not in Texas—some of our most famous barbecue joints serve no sauce at all. "Barbecue means slow cooking over the low heat of a wood or charcoal fire," say others. Sorry. Some of the best smoked meat in the Lone Star state is cooked at 600° F.

So what is Texas barbecue exactly?

Taking a look at Texas barbecue history may be the easiest way to understand it. The Caddo Indians cooked venison and other game over wood fires in Texas ten thousand years ago. They were followed by the Spanish shepherds, who spit-roasted kid goat and lamb al pastor (shepherd style) on the South Texas plains, starting in the 1600s. Mexican barbacoa, meat sealed in maguey leaves and buried in hot coals, has been seen along the Rio Grande Valley for a couple hundred years.

The Southern version of pit barbecue migrated to Texas in several stages beginning in the early 1800s. Black slaves recount cooking barbecue to celebrate the harvest on Texas cotton plantations before the Civil War. And Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the freeing of the slaves in Texas has been celebrated with barbecue since 1865.

The Southern version of barbecue begat the first big civic barbecues, which fed hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. These began to be held around the state in the early 1800s. Whole sheep, goats, pigs and steers were cut into pieces and cooked over oak or hickory coals while being continuously basted. The standard cooking time was 24 hours. This tradition lives on in such events as the XIT Annual Reunion in Dalhart, Texas, where tens of thousands of people gather year after year to attend the "world's largest free barbecue."

While the ultimate in Southern barbecue was cooking a whole hog, cooking a whole steer was the ultimate in Texas barbecue. Barbecued beef cuts remain the most common in Texas barbecue, although pork, mutton and other meats remain popular.

In the early 1900's, earthen pits of Southern barbecue were abandoned in favor of enclosed smokers modeled after those used by the German butchers in their meat markets.

And so the old meat markets came to be considered the quintessential Texas barbecue joints—despite the fact that the German smoked meats and sausages they originally produced weren’t really barbecue at all.

Southern barbecue is a proud thoroughbred whose bloodlines are easily traced. Texas barbecue is a feisty mutt with a whole lot of crazy relatives. With the crazy relatives comes the confusion, and the diffiulty in becoming one of the many fans of... Barbeque.   Maybe I will get there. Maybe...

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends...

Island BBQ Sauce

1 1/2-inch piece ginger, finely chopped

1 jalapeno, stem removed

3 green onions, chopped

2 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 1/2 cups ketchup

1/4 cup mango juice

1/4 cup guava juice
1/4 cup passion fruit juice

1/4 cup pineapple juice
1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/4 cup dark molasses

1 teaspoon dry mustard

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a food processor, add the ginger, jalapeno and green onion. Pulse until they are finely chopped. In a medium saucepan, add the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the ginger mixture and saute until tender. Combine the ketchup, mango, guava, pineapple and passion fruit juice, cider vinegar, molasses and dry mustard in a bowl and add to the saucepan. Season with salt and pepper. Let simmer, stirring often for 10 minutes for the flavors to blend.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Where's the Beef?

So after an entire day of Eleyna  pondering her options for dinner yesterday, we decided to just wing it and go out.  First choice?  Freddy's Custard.  Not a personal favorite of mine, but why not.  It was going to be a rare moment for some valuable Father-Daughter bonding, and if she wanted to go there, then so be it.  While driving north up Interstate 35, we saw Buffalo Wild Wings, and Eleyna perked up.  "Can we go there?" 

"Do you want to?"  Her excited grin was enough to convince me to swerve across 3 lanes of traffic and catch the last exit before having to do the turnaround.  We found parking about a mile away (okay, maybe it wasn't that far...) and made it into the restaurant.  We were promply seated by a smiling hostess, and that was where the positive elements of the visit ended.  After waiting 7 minutes to be greeted, and after having fully perused the menu, I said, "We should have gone to Genghis Grill."

Eleyna looked at me in surprise and said,"Can we?" At my nod, she said, "What do we do, just get up and go?"  And we did.

Genghis Grill ended up being the visit we expected, with Eleyna creating a teriyaki chicken bowl served on their fried rice (which is one of the worst I have ever tasted) and then polishing off dessert while I plowed through my bowl.  I built mine with the ever-present chicken, beef, shrimp, mushrooms, spinach, beansprouts, tomatoes and garlic.  It was DIY mastery.  In a perfect world, the beef would have been shredded, and while Genghis Grill does offer a sliced beef, it is not as flavorful as their marinated stew meat.

I remember just what a rarity eating beef at home was.  Mom always used to make us Chinese food with seafood or chicken.  While I never complained, probably because I did not really know better, I often wonder what marvelous creation would have come to fruition had she made a beef recipe.  I asked her once, many years ago, why we did few recipes utilizing beef, and the response I got made perfect sense.

Years ago beef was a luxury in the average Chinese kitchen because of its short supply and high cost, and Mom wanted to make sure that we understood the significance of that kind of scenario.  As a result, it was rarely seen on dinner tables when I was growing up.  Thankfully, things have changed significantly since then. Nowadays, beef is just as common as other meats in Chinese households.  More and more Chinese youngsters are influenced by western diets, putting pressure on moms to conform, and to cook them hamburgers and steaks. But for the older Chinese, traditions still prevail.  In the hands of an experienced cook, there can indeed be a multitude of ways to prepare a delicious beef dish. In addition to various beef stir fries, we have very elaborate beef stews, beef cold cuts, aromatic beef dumplings, beef egg rolls, crispy or tender meatballs made of chopped or ground beef, and much more.

Stir-frying seems to be designed especially for beef since it cooks rather quickly. This method is a real saver of time, money, and calories. Imagine a chunk of sirloin steak that serves only one; that same steak cut into thin strips and stirred with a head of broccoli, also cut up, and now you have a dish that serves three or four.

The hearty flavor of beef goes well with almost every vegetable. The most popular accompanying vegetables for beef are usually the ones with strong flavors such as green peppers, scallions, or celery. Greens with a crunch and refreshing taste such as asparagus, green beans, and snow peas are also good matches. One little used vegetable which gives beef a unique good taste is tender young ginger shoots.

Unlike pork, beef demands more care in stir-frying; otherwise you can end up with tough and tasteless meat. Many inexperienced cooks fail to meat the criteria for tenderness and smoothness when they cook beef because they lack the required knowledge to treat beef in the proper way. For satisfying results, remember these guidelines:

• Flank steak is the best choice if it is fresh; but if not available fresh, use other tender cuts such as sirloin or tenderloin. I try to find flank steak as often as possible from a Chinese market for stir-frying, and the resulting dish is surprisingly tender and very flavorful, indeed!

• Cut against the grain for better texture. Allow the beef to absorb enough liquid (soy sauce, sherry, and a small amount of oil) during the marinade (30 minutes or longer). The purpose is to create a tender and juicy texture. Mixing continuously helps bring the desired results.

•For a smooth texture, mix in half-teaspoon baking soda. This is a very efficient tenderizer which has been widely used by many restaurants.  If you do not want to use baking soda, use one teaspoon of cooking oil and a small amount of egg white. This combination will also give beef a smooth texture and help it remain tender.

Apart from these special techniques, another important factor when cooking with beef is the sauce. A dish is usually named after the sauce in it. Besides soy sauce, the most popular seasonings for stir-fried beef are oyster sauce, fermented black bean sauce.
Ground beef may receive less attention than whole beef in the average Chinese household, nevertheless, it stars in a few famous dim sum dishes such as Cantonese Steamed Beef Meatballs and Northern-style Pan Fried Beef Dumplings.  (This recollection brings to mind the gross potstickers I had at Asian Buffet a couple of days ago, and in their defense, I will allow myself to believe that they were TRYING to replicate that recipe.)  In many cases, beef may be used the same way as ground pork if measures are taken to eliminate its strong taste and improve its texture. Some of the Chinese secrets for use with ground beef include:

•Use Szechuan Peppercorn Oil, minced ginger and scallion to combat any gamey or strong tastes.

•Mix in egg, cornstarch, and sesame oil for added smoothness.

Interestingly, Pan Fried Beef Dumplings, when made properly, are a tasty beef snack made from ground beef, have a better taste than egg rolls. These dumplings are juicy and flavorful on the inside, aromatic and crusty on the outside.
One advantage of Chinese cooking is that everybody, even the novice cook, can discover the ability to transform uninteresting inexpensive cuts of meat into delicacies. A good example of this can be seen in Beef Stew Noodles, which is made from beef shin or brisket. Almost all Chinese people love this dish. When it is cooked to perfection, it tastes robust and incredibly delicious. Another famous beef shin dish is Five Spice Beef. It is succulent and aromatic, and the beef is usually cut into large slices and served as a first course at a banquet or as cold cuts during a regular meal.

While I am bound to the flavor profiles that the family enjoys when cooking a meal, I do enjoy the ability to throw a meal together and call it my own.  As long as it is tasty and the kids eat it, I consider it a success.  So now, comes the question:  What is for dinner tonight?

Until then, Good Eating, Friends...

Tomato Beef

1/2 pound flank steak

4 Tablespoons oil

2 medium tomatoes, sliced

1 Tablespoon chopped scallions

1 teaspoon sugar

salt to taste

1 Tablespoon chopped garlic

Marinating sauce:

1 Tablespoon soy sauce

1 Tablespoon oyster sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon dry sherry

1 Tablespoon cornstarch


1. Cut beef into thin slices, and mix with the marinating sauce, and allow to stand for at least fifteen minutes.

2. Heat two Tablespoon oil until very hot and saute scallions until they are light brown. Add the tomatoes and while stirring, add the salt and sugar. Cook about two minutes until the tomatoes are barely limp.  Remove and set aside.

3. Rinse and dry the wok or pan and heat the rest of the oil. Saute the garlic half a minute then fry the beef until no longer red. Return the tomato mixture to the pan, mix well, and cook one minute longer then remove to a serving platter.  Serve with steamed rice.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Better Than the Real Thing. Really?

"Asian Buffet down the street is one of the best here in San Antonio."


"I have never had a bad meal, and no one else can come close to cooking anything as tasty."


"Yes.  Have you not read the many reviews about it?  Nobody ever has anything bad to say about it."


"That's right.  Unless YOU think you could do better.  Anyways, what are you...Vietnamese?"


"If I were to say, maybe, Garlic Chicken, I bet you couldn't make a recipe that good.  Or even Broccoli Beef, much less, say, a really good Fried Rice.  I invented the fried rice that they use down the street."

"Okay.  You need to leave my office now.  Have a good day."

Almost verbatim, this conversation I just had with some poor ignorant woman who obviously forgot to take her meds.  (This is the same woman who says that even though she pays her phone bill, the bears and cats that prowl around underground have been clawing up the lines, and that she is the one who invented all of the "stuff in H.E.B.", or that she personally pays George W. Bush his SSDI payments on a monthly basis.)

While I don't take what this poor woman has to say seriously, sadly, I do believe that her words and opinion mirror very closely the sentiments of many naive souls here in San Antonio.  People who live in a community where rice and beans are the primary starch choice, or where the only word that should precede "sauce" is barbeque, enchilada, or tabasco will never really have a true grasp of what the original flavors of authentic Chinese Cuisine are. 

The popularity of Chinese food has created a fascinating phenomenon. With the exception of pizza, it is the most widely recognized food available, and its recognizability comes both from the various flavor profiles as well as its presentation.  As extensively as it is eaten, it is written about in newspapers, magazines and books, and presented on television. It is discussed to such a degree that most people believe they know just about all there is to know about Chinese food.

Those who write about it and others who present it, generally do so with confidence but more often than not do so with arrogance and ignorance. They allow us, their audience, to believe that they, too, know just about all that there is to know about this great historic kitchen when in reality, they do not. Very few of those who profess such knowledge really know very much. Worse, perhaps, is that in most cases they proceed with ignorance. They do not take the time or the effort, and they seem not to care or learn about Chinese food and cooking.

To add insult to injury, many successful television network stars create their own version of popular dishes, professing them "better than the real thing."  Any creation of a dish that was created by food network for their targeted audience, which  does not include the majority of the Asian population, should NOT be described as better than the real thing.

For the most part, they write about and present time-worn clichés, blatant inaccuracies, information gotten from second- and third-person sources, or from inaccurate translations. Suppositions and ill-founded research become perpetuated. What results is a circle of ignorance regarding Chinese foods, traditions, and preparations.

The resulting information as to what Chinese food is, when it is not, ends up being the general perception, hence the misguided belief that what is not good, is. What are presented below are what Chinese food is thought to be; examples have appeared and continue to appear in newspapers, magazines, or on television. In none of these examples, are names of authors given; the purpose is not to embarrass anyone, rather to hope that those who write about food will devote the time necessary to study what Chinese food is before they write or broadcast what it is not.

Witness the following statements, assertions, and/or conclusions. All are in error even though all are reported as Chinese food fact. Along with them are what I will call occasional notes, in italics, all mine.

* From a magazine food critic who described a dish as 'Cantonese Empanaditas' and really loved the 'Grilled Black Grouper Szechuan.' That type of inattention to detail sends incorrect information regarding menu offerings.  "Empanaditas?"  Isn't that a Spanish word?

* From a television cook who described hoisin as a sauce of 'mostly soybeans, sugar and tomatoes, I think,' and later referring to sambal ulek first as 'Indonesian' and later as 'Malaysian.' Reading what one writes before allowing it to be printed is needed here.

* From a newspaper writer, generally well-regarded, who said 'The dim sum (called Yum Cha in Australia) knocked our socks off.' Yum Cha is a Cantonese phrase meaning 'drink tea;' it has nothing to do with Australia.

* From a magazine writer discussing cooking in Shanghai: 'Duck is the mainstay of the eastern provinces.' For the record, Shanghai is a city, not a province. And this from a magazine writer: 'Shanghai region is partial to chicken dishes.' Look; this city now becomes a region!

* From a magazine writer: 'Chinese foods are most often fried in cottonseed oil.' Currently, rapeseed oil is popular in China; in the United States, soy bean oil is used more frequently.

* From a television presenter, after dropping more than a spoonful of MSG into a wok, as he demonstrated: 'It's natural. They always use it.' No, it is not always used, and certainly not by a teaspoon full of it.

* References, too numerous to count, are made to 'Mandarin' cooking or cuisine or to 'Mandarin' restaurants, as a school of Chinese cooking. There is no such school of Chinese cooking.

* An article about Fujian food contains recipes that are not from Fujian, likewise one about the cooking of Chiu Chow. A restaurant review is presented about supposed Hakka food when the dishes reviewed are not Hakka. Likewise, an article on Asian green vegetables that misstates their properties and tastes, but which were beautifully photographed. In this country, foods from Boston would not be touted as Texan; why such ignorance about China, or about properties or tastes?

* From a food magazine quoting a Western teacher of Chinese food. 'Very few Chinese can cook dishes from other regions than their own'... (the) 'food of native Cantonese chefs is usually bland.' This was followed by an assertion, 'I know how to teach them what they need to know. I have never met a Chinese-born instructor who does.' Aside from the obvious prejudice of this one, it surely is most outrageous.

* From a newspaper writer on the cooking of the Chinese-Malay people of Singapore known as Nonya, when describing what a 'rempeh' is, said it was 'A spice mixture called rempeh cooked like a roux, (it) is a base for most curries and sauces.' It is not rempeh but rather rempah and it contains pounded raw ingredients, which when cooked are referred to as sambal.

* From a food critic who loved a 'flavorful and densely packed eggroll.' The eggroll is not Chinese, the spring roll is.

* From another writer who suggested that a 'Spring Egg Roll'...(is) 'similar to a typical egg roll.' Ignorance is bliss in this case, don't you think?
* From a magazine writer who described Hunan as 'China's rice-producing province.' Geography and agriculture lessons needed here; as to the latter, all southern provinces raise considerable quantities of rice.

*From a food critic who said she could not make out what a 'water dog' was in the Chinese restaurant she visited. What she reacted to, in ignorance, was the word gow which, depending upon intonation, is either dog, the number nine, or a dumpling. In this case, had she done some work and not opted for a laugh, she would have found that what was referred to as 'soy gow' was a water dumpling, a staple of the 'dim sum' kitchen.

* From a newspaper food writer describing a preparation as 'washed' in a 'sticky, sweet Hoisin style glaze.' Anyone care to take a venture and explain just what that might be?

* That same writer, in the same account, suggests that a dim sum dumpling skin would stretch 'two, even three inches' and that in Peking Duck, the 'fat is hardened' and that crisp-fried seaweed is 'actually deep-fried shredded cabbage.' What is the purpose of stretching and how much dough was stretched? In Peking Duck, rarely is there any fat because most is melted and drained in the roasting of the duck...and it is never served. As to seaweed, it, Chinese broccoli leaves, pearl leaves, and other greens are occasionally deep-fried.

* Nor is this writer alone. Another writer, interviewing a Chinese restauranteur noted that in his restaurant there was 'no cornstarch, no MSG and no gunk' and then actually set down as fact the restauranteur's assertion that all of his food was cooked only with scallions, ginger, garlic, tangerine skin and a 'hint of chili' and 'that's about it.' What is gunk?

* From a magazine writer: 'Fish balls...can make or break a (Chinese) chef.' No one succeeds on one food item, and anyway, fishballs are served only in Chiu Chow, Hakka, and noodle restaurants.

* From another, a critic, who wrote about 'Plum Duck' as a 'lightened-up version of Peking Duck; it is lean and boneless in a beany sauce.' Beany? And, variously we have the 'five' schools of Chinese cooking referred to as 'Canton, Szechuan, Peking, Honan, and Fukien,' or the three as 'Peking, Szechuan, and Hunan.' Then there are such marvelous additions to the pseudo-Chinese table as an authentic 'Chili Crustace Sauce' or 'green oriental radishes,' or 'souffle balls,' even 'Melon balls in ginger ale.' Not to mention the ghastly food called Chinese served up not only in those steam-table, fast-food outlets, but also in such chains as China Coast and Chopstix, to cite just two, or the all-purpose Chinese sauce marketed as 'Soy Vay.' Think you have my point.

* From a cookbook author, whose announced expertise is not Chinese, yet felt she could describe the 'traditional' way of presenting Peking Duck classically....the first course, she said, consisted of skin in a dipping sauce of hoisin, sherry, and sesame oil; the second course 'meat folded into flour doilies;' the third, duck appetizers 'which included the liver and jellied duck webs;' the fourth, a 'thick duck soup.' All of this is so inaccurate as to defy correction. Perhaps that was its intent.

* From another cookbook author, who wrote in a food magazine that prosciutto could be substituted for Yunnan ham. How soft sweet ham can replace hard, salty ham is beyond belief. Also mentioned was Beggar's Chicken as 'roasted' instead of baked, and that it was cooked in a paper oven bag. How far can tradition and adaptation be stretched?

* From another cookbook author who advises that if fresh water chestnuts are not available, then substitute apples. Or another, who suggests that tortillas can be substituted for the pancakes served with Peking Duck and Moo Shu Pork. Read on dear friends.

* What all of the above say is a result of a stunning degree of lack of knowledge, or sadly, an indifference to the properties and tastes of foods that make up the Chinese kitchen. The following are other substitutions, all of them offered in a book alleged to be about Chinese cooking: For bamboo shoots, substitute celery, green peppers, carrots, or rutabaga; for water chestnuts, substitute basically the same; for bean spouts, substitute shredded onions; for brown bean sauce, substitute Bovril; for ginkgo nut or lotus seeds, substitute blanched almonds; and for fermented black beans, substitute salt. Yes, salt.

* From a television food person who demonstrated how to steam a fish 'the way the Chinese do.' He said to place all of the ingredients of what normally would be a marinade into the bottom of a wok, heated to boiling, then place a fish on a rack over the boiling marinade. Really?

* From a food critic who wrote of her Chinese meal saying that one dish was covered with a 'malty black bean sauce,' that another was beef 'plated with colorful Asian vegetables;' also, that 'despite being fried the duck had a light taste' and, that a breaded pork dish was 'without a whit of the flaming taste of lemongrass.' Mixed cultural signals, I think.

* From a magazine food writer who, after a visit to that public relations exercise in Singapore known as the Imperial Herbal Restaurant, wrote that its food 'combined haute cuisine techniques and delicate, subtle flavors with traditional Chinese herbal cooking.' Huh?

* From a newspaper writer who described as 'dim sum' as a dish of soft shell crabs cooked in a black bean and coriander sauce. Huh? again.

* From television food people who seem to have difficulty with the word Sichuan. It usually comes out as 'Sesh-Wan' or 'Shush-Wen' as it did in a program about 'white Taro cake' which in reality is a cake of turnips. Listen also to what happened with Shao-Hsing wine which on television becomes 'Shee-Shing' or 'Show Shin' or simply 'Chinese cooking wine.' Seems they rarely make such gaffes over locales or words related to the news.

And so on. As I noted earlier, all of these, all of which are incorrect, now reside somewhere in newspaper morgues and libraries, in computer resource banks, in television storage facilities waiting to be found and used as research. How sad!

Let us hope that those that are interested, or who regard it as an obligation to tell the reading and watching world what Chinese food is, will discard all of the above and study and consult with those who know what Chinese food is, really is.  Until then, Good Eating, Friends...

Easy Barbeque Steak


2 pounds lean, boneless beef steak

1/2 cup finely chopped scallions

1 Tablespoon finely chopped garlic

2 Tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons soy jam (thick soy)

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon sesame oil


1. Braise the steaks on a hot grill until done to your taste.

2. Make a sauce blending the scallions, garlic, soy sauce, soy jam, mustard, and sesame oil.

3. When the steak is done to your taste, smother it with the sauce mixture.

4.  Serve over rice with your choice of vegetable side.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

MSG - Unveiled


At an Asian Buffet.

It was a veritable hodgepodge of unidentifiable items on the plate in front of me, and the flavor profile was even more obscure. 

"Fried Potstickers."  Filled with seasoned ground beef.  (Really?)

"Stir Fried Mushrooms."  Drowning in Soy Sauce.

"Pepper Steak." Yes, there was a bell pepper, and yes there was steak.

"Sesame Chicken."  Fried chicken with sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

"Garlic Chicken."  Unidentifiable bits of fried (I think...) chicken with a salty peppery sauce.

"Mongolian Chicken." More of the same fried chicken (?) with an overly salty sauce.

"Spicy Tuna Roll."  A sushi-styled roll - maybe the only good thing on my plate, but with nori so stale it stuck to the roof of my mouth.

"Rose's Special Chicken."  A flavorless strip of baked chicken.

Oily steamed Rice.

That was all I dared try, even though I did take a cup of won ton soup, but after one bite, I could not finish it...

All of that on one plate, enough to fill me up, and "ice cream" for dessert.  For the bargain price of $10.00.  (Thank God lunch was not on me.)

There were close to 100 different offerings on the island of Asian Buffet, with 2 kinds of fried rice, a vegetable lo mein, egg rolls of some sort, won ton chips, spring rolls, enchiladas, a cheese covered fish of some sort, chicken on a skewer, sweet & sour chicken, onion rings, fried mushrooms, sesame balls, chicken nuggets...

They had stuffed fresh fruit, canned fruits, pastries, jello, pudding, cookies, cakes and some other bizarre sweet offerings as well, should one not be full prior to hitting those options... 

It was salty.  Very salty.  It was also sweet.  Very sweet.  Overall, an overload of salty and sweet, with no room for middle ground on flavor. 

Was it worth it? Probably not.

Sadly, an hour later, I had a really bad headache and I was hungry, again.  I think that I became a victim of the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, a Monosodium Glutamate induced attack of headache, flushing and palpitations.  Monosodium Glutamate, known more commonly as MSG is used as a flavoring agent and preservative.

For thousands of years, Japanese cooks used a special ingredient called konbu, in their cooking. It was made from seaweed and used to make their dishes more tasty and more savory. In the early 1900's, an active ingredient was isolated from this seaweed and identified as monosodium glutamate (MSG). Shortly after that, the Japanese started to manufacture MSG in large quantities. It soon became a multi-million dollar business. Among the first to use MSG to enhance food taste were Chinese Restaurants in the United States. After World War II, all the major food companies in the world and many restaurants used MSG in their products.

Twenty-five years ago, more than two hundred fifty thousand metric tons or five hundred million pounds of MSG were being produced and sold. It is estimated now, that over one billion pounds are produced and sold annually. It is found in most processed foods, and many popular quick-prep food and soup items.  While many people believe that MSG makes foods taste better, others disdain it.

By the end of the 1960's, research data caused alarm about side effects associated with the use of food products made with MSG. At that time, Chinese Restaurants were exceptionally popular. About the same time, a famous Chinese doctor complained about getting headaches and tightness of his temple whenever he ate at a Chinese restaurant. Also, at about this time, the phrase 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' first appeared in the media. Some time thereafter, due to an outcry of indignation from the Chinese restaurants, it was relabeled 'MSG Syndrome.' Nonetheless, 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' is still widely used to describe any unpleasant reaction people experience who think they are sensitive to MSG.
How is this so? MSG is a modified form of glutamic acid to which sodium replaces hydrogen forming monosodium glutamate or MSG. According to research data, the glutamate radical of the molecule is the part that causes the 'MSG Syndrome.' Other substances such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and autolyzed yeast contain anywhere from ten to fifty percent MSG. Many oyster flavored sauces and other Chinese sauces, which are used extensively by Chinese restaurants, have MSG in them. It is also used in some chicken bases that make up many a Chinese restaurant soup; there are a number of cooks who believe that these soup products do not contain MSG and unknowingly, they use them.

Because of earlier unfavorable publicity regarding MSG, many people are aware that the Chinese restaurant industry has suffered. This is true, even though most people know that when Chinese food is properly prepared, it is the most healthy and tasty of all known cuisines, and that it does not have to have MSG to make it so.

My personal advice to the Chinese restaurant industry is todo everything it its power to try to remove the stigma of this syndrome associated with Chinese foods. Only then can the Chinese restaurant industry regain its position, in the mind of the American public, as provider of wholesome and healthy cuisine.

That is the bad news for Chinese restaurants. The good news is that the MSG syndrome problem can be eliminated by better cooking techniques and by using newer products on the market.  These new products, most called ribotides, are powders that can be used the same way one uses MSG; they enhance the taste of all food products and will not cause 'MSG Syndrome.' Now, they are used by many major food manufacturers to replace MSG as a flavor enhancer. Not only are manufacturers using these new products, restaurants and individuals are, too.

The Chinese restaurant you frequent that clearly says No MSG, may be using a ribotide. Restaurants that are not Chinese are using them, too; so are many major hotels.  Ask your local restaurant not to use MSG. Most will willingly oblige.  When in doubt, ask for nutritional information from the restaurant that you frequent most often.  That way you will discover a surprise or confirm that indeed, the restaurant does not use MSG.

Until then, I think I am going to do my simple recipe of Black Pepper Shrimp for dinner, instead of what I had planned (Drunken Prawns.)  Good Eating, Friends... 
Black Pepper Shrimp


2 pounds whole jumbo-size shrimp in their shells, heads left on

2 Tablespoons corn oil

2 Tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 red hot chili pepper, seeded and minced

2 shallots, peeled and minced

1/4 cup corn oil

1/4 cup rice wine or dry sherry

1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 Tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper


1. Remove the tiny feet of each shrimp, leave head and tail on. Then rinse well and paper-towel dry them.

2. Heat oil and saute ginger, garlic, chili pepper, and shallots for one minute then add shrimp and stir-fry for two minutes.

3. Add wine and cover and cook another two minutes, then remove cover and add the salt and pepper and stir for a minute, then serve over rice.

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