Watercress Soup

img_2083One of my favorite soups next to lotus root soup, especially when I start seeing bunches of this stuff stacked up in the produce area, it’s something I can’t resist.  I made a pot a while back and wanted to share with you all since this vegetable is coming into season.

You can easily feed a family with this soup, but it’s also good to keep in the fridge for a while as long as you only heat what you need.  You will need some simple ingredients, but can be easily modified.

1 bunch of watercress, washed and drained.
1.5 to 2 cups of carrot, chopped into big chunks
1 cup of vege meat, I used a mix of vege lamb and a veggie soup meat since it already has oils and seasonings that I don’t need to add later.
1/2 gallon of water in a soup pot.
Pinch of salt to taste

You want to get the water boiling first before anything since that can take some time.  Once the water boils, the vege meat and carrots go in, let it boil again.  Add the watercress a little bit at a time so that the final product doesn’t clump together, or you can choose to chop up the watercress if you so prefer.

Let the whole thing boil again and turn to medium-low heat and let simmer for about an hour.  Season with salt to taste and it’s ready to serve.

An alternative would be to add a dried sugar date for taste (about the size of a quarter) and a tablespoon each of the Chinese Northern and Southern Almonds along with the carrots.  This product would need to cook longer, about 1.5 to 2 hours in order for all the flavors to come out.

A cooler alternative would be to make watercress tea, where you just boil watercress, a sugar date, and water, then strain, cool, bottle, and fridge.  It’s a great way to cool down when it really gets hot in the summer months.

This was a recipe I learned since I was a kid and I stood by it ever since.  Give it a try, and I’ll see you next post.

Rice Pasta with Mushrooms and White Sauce

It was a full moon day at the temple, the Abbot and director had to go out of town leaving me and another resident monk on site.  I was asked to make dinner, so before I left home I found a can of truffle and mushroom sauce that I bought way too long ago.  I thought about pasta.

After evening chanting, I looked in the temple kitchen for some ingredients, mushrooms, butter, milk, etc.  There wasn’t any pasta available, but I found a pack of dried noodles made with rice and gluten shaped like linguine.  I also couldn’t find the flour, so I took a risk and tried rice flour.

I don’t have exact measurements for these ingredients, but for those that have experience, you can probably figure out the portions as we go along.

Ingredients:

  • White button mushrooms with stems pulled and skinned if a little too old, cut into thick slices.
  • Soy patties, diced.
  • deep fried plain white tofu, sliced
  • Butter, 2 Tablespoons
  • Milk, about a glass
  • Flour (rice flour in this case), about 3 Tablespoons
  • Small can of truffle and mushroom sauce
  • Pasta (or rice pasta in this case)
  • Parmesan cheese

To completely vegan-ize this, the butter can be substituted with maybe a mix of avocado and peanut oil, the milk replaced with cashew milk, and the cheese with either a vegan cheese or just skipped altogether.

Cook the pasta a little bit under al-dente or whatever the instructions say.  For example, if the package says 10 minutes, cook them for maybe 8 or 9.  Then save up a little bit of pasta water, then strain.  Saute the mushrooms in a lightly oiled pan until the juices come out and have fairly reduced (I usually reduce to about 1/4) then add soy patty chunks and tofu slices.  Set aside for later.

In another clean pan, melt the butter with an extra tablespoon or so of oil, then add the flour and stir fry until slightly brown and mixed well.  Add the milk, stir around, if it’s too thick, use pasta water to dilute it some.  Season with mushroom powder and add cheese.  Then add the truffle sauce and lower the heat to low.  Stir for a quick minute, taste to make sure it’s not too salty (you can try to do a save with pasta water or milk but not too much).  If there’s not enough seasoning, add salt and pepper to taste.

Mix the pasta into the sauce and plate.  Top with the mushroom stirfry and some more cheese on top.  Serve immediately.

The tofu may sound like it doesn’t exactly fit, but it sat around for a while and needed to be used up.  After trying this recipe the tofu came out pretty nice.  The thing about cooking is that it doesn’t have to be always exactly step-by-step.  Once you can grasp onto the core concepts, for example, getting enough sauce to incorporate all the pasta while not wasting anything, you can change some of the stuff around.

The idea of Zen is that it can’t be completely fixed in stone.  That’s not what Bodhidharma or Hui Neng wanted.  Zen is lively and can be practiced and applied in different ways without neglecting our reflection and awareness of our own actions.  By the way, the final product was successful.

 

Chow Mein

img_1452I still try to find time to cook whenever possible.  It is true that after my work at the temple the volunteers offer me a bento or food I can take back home to warm up for dinner, but that’s not always the case.  On nights when I don’t feel like making a three-course meal but would still like to cook something from scratch, chow mein has been my go-to dish to make.  It’s a good potluck dish for a party as well.

To make these noodles in your own kitchen you’ll need:

1 pack of store bought thick egg noodles or oil noodles as some may call them (for vegans you can use white noodles, just cook, strain, and wash according to package instructions)

1 pack of brown beech mushrooms or bunashimeiji mushrooms, with the bottoms cut off and ripped into individual pieces.

1/4 head of cabbage, julienned.

2 blocks of marinated bean curd, cut into matchsticks or julienned.

1-2T of vegetarian oyster sauce or soy sauce paste

1 cup of  warm water

Soy sauce and sesame oil to taste.

salt, pepper, mushroom powder to taste.

In a wok heated on medium-high, add about 3/4T of oil. After the oil heats up add the cabbage and stirfry well.  Sprinkle a pinch of salt to start the sweating process until most of the moisture has evaporated.  Then add the mushrooms, add the mushroom powder to start sweating those as well, stir fry for about five minutes then add bean curd, add another layer of seasoning and stir fry again for a few minutes.

Open up an area in the middle of the wok and add the noodles and half of the water.  With chopsticks, loosen up the noodles so that they are all drenched in the water, you can add more water a little bit at a time if needed but no more than 1 cup.  If you are using white noodles, 1/2 cup of water should be plenty since the noodles are fully cooked already.  Add the pepper, vegetarian oyster sauce and soy sauce, mix everything well and cover with a lid for a few minutes so the water can evaporate off.

Once most of the water has evaporated, stir everything again and check the noodles if they’re seasoned as you like, you can adjust the seasoning at this point.  Finally, toss in the sesame oil and it’s ready to plate.

This may not be the absolute perfect quality chow mein, but I’ve tried this recipe a few times already and so far, so good.  When temples serve chow mein during lunch, it’s considered a big deal because the cost of chow mein is higher than the cost of the alternative stir-fried rice vermicelli.  Most temples serve chow mein on special days or when someone donates the noodles themselves or offers a significant enough amount of dana for the kitchen to get an order to create this dish.  I use the thick noodles because they can cook in the wok together with everything else and I won’t have to worry about washing another pot.  Thin noodles can also work but I haven’t had enough success stories with them.  Thin noodles I actually like them pan-fried to a crisp on both sides with the ingredients made separately and poured on top.  Let me know if you tried this recipe and let me know what you think!  More recipes in the future perhaps?

Have You Had Your Porridge Yet?

So today is the eighth day of the last lunar month of the year, otherwise known as laba in Chinese or rohatsu in Japanese. You might notice your local temple inviting you to have porridge with them on this day or help them distribute porridge to community members.  Is there something significant about this porridge?  Well, yes and no.

I saw an advertisement that claimed that Laba is a Buddhist holiday and the custom of offering porridge is to remember the bowl of milk porridge that the Buddha received from the shepherd’s daughter right before he attained enlightenment. Of course, we can’t forget that it the Buddha was inspired by that bowl of porridge to seek the middle way and from there moving onto awakening, but that didn’t really spark a tradition of offering porridge world-wide (yet).  This then later became to be recognized as Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, or Bodhi Day, or FGS likes to call it Dharma Day.

The term la or 臘 in Chinese ceremonial texts refers to the celebration of year’s end or gratitude for the year’s harvest whether by farming or hunting.  That means a lot of ceremonial offerings to the heavens and the ancestors.  When Buddhism came in, then the celebrations became big business.  The imperial court ordered the lamas at Yonghe Palace to cook tons of porridge to be distributed to officials and to more remote areas.  Apparently there’s a big wok at Yonghe Palace that was made specifically for this porridge, like with a volume of 4 tons according to history, but when I visited it was raining and I was too busy admiring the tall Maitreya statue that I didn’t bother to look for the wok.  Have you seen it?

So being the eighth day of the month, symbolically there would be eight ingredients in the porridge, not including the rice.  Google even made a graphic a few years back here.  The recipe used at Yonghe Palace had ground lamb meat, of course, most of the temples that offer porridge are vegetarian if not vegan.  I tried cooking this porridge at work once and the prep work involved was so intense I didn’t want to do it again.  The porridge tradition only exists in China though, and as I mentioned earlier, it was an offset of the worship/offering rituals before Buddhism came into China.

So what else is done on this day besides binging on porridge?  Well, some traditions would host intensive meditation sessions, or chanting retreats, or workshop presentations on what they studied throughout the year.  Some temples even hold ordination ceremonies on this day as well, which makes it quite meaningful for the newly ordained.  The temple I grew up in when I was young, used to hold their annual Emperor Liang Repentance retreat that week, that was special.  I also heard one of the local temples used to hold their 10,000 Buddha Repentance retreat where each participant made 10,000 prostrations over the course of one month but because there aren’t enough resources anymore, these grand events ended up being history.

Mapo Tofu

I was shopping at the market the other day, and I noticed a special on mapo tofu sauces.  If you have seen them before, they come at a variety of spice levels depending on what you’re looking for.  I would usually get the spiciest one, but that doesn’t seem to fulfill my needs for spice anymore.  I’ve also noticed the ingredients in those packs are as complicated as linear calculus.  So I thought to look up if there was a way to make this dish from scratch.  Lo and behold, I found it.

This recipe can serve a potluck, or be one of those dishes you can eat for days.  The ingredients are pretty simple:

1 pack of soft/silken tofu, drained and cut into cubes.
2-3 vege hamburger patties, diced, or you can use about 1/2 pack of your favorite vege ground meat substitute (make sure it’s unflavored though, or else the flavors might get mixed up).
10 preserved black beans, whole beans
2-3 Tablespoons of chili bean paste, depending on how spicy you want the final product to come out, an alternate would be to use one part chili bean paste to however many parts pure chili paste you want to avoid the excess salt from the bean paste, but you may want to have a fire extinguisher handy if you take that route…
About 2 cups of water or enough to cover the tofu later.
Mushroom Powder
And sugar to taste.

If you can’t find any ground meat substitute, you can dice up some trumpet mushrooms and they work almost just as well, sometimes I would do 1 patty with 2 cups of diced mushrooms if I feel fancy.

Have a wok burning on medium high, when the wok warms up, add a little bit of oil, and add the preserved black beans, ground meat (if you’re using mushrooms you might want to lower the heat to medium so the mushrooms don’t burn too quickly), and mushroom powder, a pinch or two, for now, you can always adjust later. Stir fry until fragrant.

Add the chili bean paste, stir-fry until fragrant, about a minute.  You can add 1/4 teaspoon of sugar at this point if you already feel the final product may be saltier than expected and then add half of the water.

Slowly add the tofu, you don’t want to break the tofu.  Then add the remaining water until about 3/4 of the tofu are submerged.  Bring the whole thing to a boil then lower the heat and let the mixture reduce.

Don’t let the tofu just sit there though, use a spatula and slowly push the tofu around every so often.  This is the most time consuming and boring step, but it’s what the tofu needs to get its flavor, and your time will be well invested.  Keep going until about 1/2 the water remains or if you notice the water has slightly thickened up.  Take a taste, you can quickly adjust with sugar if it’s too salty or mushroom powder if it’s too bland.  If you want more sauce, then when the water is at the halfway mark you can add a cornstarch and water slurry and thicken the thing up and it’s done.

For those days when I just feel like having something over rice, this would be a great go to.  Enjoy!

Stir Fried Gai-lan

I admit I am a little picky when it comes to stir-fry vegetables at home.  That may be because the temple kitchens have more powerful ranges than my home kitchen and can cook them much better, and faster as well.  Not to say the least, I still eat as many greens as I can.

Gai-lan, or Chinese kale, or Chinese Broccoli, is one of those greens I will most likely eat if they look tender enough at the market.  It’s also one of those vegetables that I will only eat either stir-fried, chopped into fried rice, or as a side with my noodle soups.  Well here is what I do at home to make a simple stir-fried gai-lan, one bunch can easily serve 3-4.

img_1475You will need:

One bunch of gai-lan, or gai-lan sprouts if you’re lucky (they’re much more tender).  I suggest you wash them at least twice to get out any sand or other foreign objects out.  Separate the leaves from the stems and cut the stems/stalks into similar sized pieces.

Salt

Mushroom Powder

Rice Wine or Water mixed with a pinch of sugar

Ginger slices

First heat a wok or a pan with some depth, on high, turn on any range hoods or open the windows, you want this vessel to get real hot, then add about 3/4T of vegetable oil or oil of your choice, but should be an oil that can withstand high heat.  So something like olive oil would not be recommended.

Add the ginger almost immediately, stir that around for a few seconds and add the stems.  If you hear a loud sizzle after adding them in, then the pan is for sure at the right temperature.  Stir that around for a minute or so.  You can add a pinch of salt or mushroom powder to help tenderize the stems and add some flavor.  After a good minute or two, you can add the leaves, the pan will get crowded but the leaves will wilt shortly.  Add about 1/4 cup or so of rice wine (or water and a little sugar) and cover with a lid. You can lower the heat slightly at this point to let the moisture’s steam wilt and cook the vegetables.  When most of the moisture has evaporated, you can season everything again with some mushroom powder or salt, stir everything around and it’s ready to serve.

The temples that I have visited that served gai-lan would usually just do a blanch with light seasoning.  My mother would meet half way by blanching the stems and stir-frying that together with the leaves.  Try it out for yourself, let me know what you think.

Tomato Soup with Chinese Gnocchi

board close up cooking delicious
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On my recent trip overseas, I was asked to help with a farewell dinner for a group of students at the dorm facility I was staying at.  I was given the task to look for the main dish and the criteria was something that had to be fairly easy to do and can be done in as few pots as possible.  I usually keep a record via YouTube playlists of vegan/veg recipes that I would look through or add to from time to time, so that was the first place I searched after agreeing to the task.

So I suggested how about a Tomato noodle soup with mian geda or Chinese gnocchi.  The resident teacher liked the idea so we went with it.  Most of the cooking is done by the students so the teacher thought about having them make gnocchi from scratch can be a challenge so the dish was adjusted to yellow noodles instead (Chinese gnocchi is made from flour and water instead of the Italian version with potatoes and flour).  When we looked through the recipe, there was an ingredient called dongcai or Chinese pickled cabbage from the Tianjin region of China.  On this part of the island apparently, it can be kind of difficult to find some of these specialty ingredients, so I had to think of alternatives to some of these steps that are called for in the recipe.  After many trips up and down the mountain to the markets and mom-and-pop grocery shops, I decided to go with pickled radish as a substitute.

When it was time to prep, I was given the surprised that the button mushrooms I ordered tuned into fresh shitake mushrooms.  I didn’t really know how to respond–value wise the shitakes are more expensive but I was hoping for the flavor from the buttons to match better with the tomatoes.  I still decided to go with the shitakes and take a risk.

After doing all the prep, I carried up the huge wok to the range and was sort of shocked at how heavy the wok weighed.  It was already a huge wok to begin with, maybe about a yard in diameter.  I turned the heat on, grabbed one of those big soup ladles and laid down the oil.  After all the ingredients went in, I discovered the wok was already full and there were still tomato wedges that didn’t make it into the pot!  At first, I tried to let the tomatoes reduce then try to add more but there were still a lot of tomatoes to go through.  I ended up letting the deep-fry crew take the remaining tomatoes and make tempura out of them.

Meanwhile, I was still trying to stir the tomatoes that are already in the big wok.  That wok was getting harder and harder and harder to stir.  To feed sixty guys is no easy task with this kind of equipment!  After rounds of tasting and adjusting, the soup was finally completed and left for the rest of the cooking crew to complete and serve.  I was so worn out I forgot to take pictures of the process!

Temple cooks go through these kinds of scenarios at least weekly if not daily.  After that experience, I have for sure grown a deeper respect for the tenzo, or the temple cook, and their crew.  My mom was a tenzo for a few years but she worked with multiple family style pans and woks.  That wok I worked with could feed an army!  And all this for what?  So that practitioners can have a hearty meal to give them energy and encouragement to continue their practice.

For those that are interested in the recipe:
For the gnocchi you’ll need 1 bowl of warm water and 2 bowls of all purpose flour.  For smaller (or larger) portions, maintain a 1:2 ratio and work from there.
Mix the water into the flour until it forms a soft dough, you can season with salt if you like.
Let the dough sit covered for about 10 minutes.
Have a pot of salted, boiling water ready–break the dough into small pieces and toss into the water until the dough floats back up. Then set aside until needed.  Keep the cooking water though.

For the tomato soup:
Have about 1-2 cups of sliced button mushrooms (or more if you like mushrooms)
Minced ginger about 1 tablespoon
1 Tablespoon of dongcai (or pickled radish), minced
3-4 cups of diced tomatoes (more doesn’t hurt)
3 or so tablespoons of ketchup
Salt, pepper, and sugar to taste

Sweat the mushrooms by sauteing them in a deep pan (or wok!) with some oil.  When the mushrooms have evaporated most of their moisture add the minced ginger. As the ginger aroma arises added the dongcai and saute until the aroma comes out.

Add the tomatoes, let them cook and let their juices come out into the pan.  Then add the ketchup.  Add a round of salt and pepper and then add some of the cooking water from the gnocchi until you’ve reach the amount of soup you want, usually a little more than half of the pan is good.  Have a taste when the soup boils to make sure it isn’t too salty.  You should have a balance of salty, sour, and sweet.  If something’s missing or overdone now would be the time to fix it.  After all that is done the gnocchi goes back in and it’s ready to serve.  You can add a little sesame oil at the end for that extra aroma.