When food luminary Alice Waters describes a person as “one of the greatest cooks I have ever known” (from the jacket flap of one of this week’s books), we have to pay attention. And, in addition to Alice Waters, Bruce Cost has garnered blurbs on the back of his books from other stars: Paula Wolfert, Marion Cunningham, Ruth Reichl, Craig Claiborne, Ken Hom. So, no doubt about it, this guy is popular in his peer group. The question is, though: can his amazing cooking be adapted for and communicated to the home cook? The short answer is yes.
Bruce Cost’s area of expertise is Asian food, especially Chinese food. He has been around for a while, with teaching experience, restaurant experience, and food journalism all to his credit; these days he is involved in marketing his ginger ale. Bruce has three cookbooks to his name, each quite different from the other two, and each quite interesting. However, like many serious cooks, he does not pay much attention to silly ideas such as vegetarianism or kashrut; thus his books are not too friendly to a cook such as I am. Meaty recipes abound, especially those with trayf meats, and many of his ingredients, found in well-stocked Asian groceries, are of questionable (to say the least) kashrut status. Thus lots of recipes were just out of bounds to begin with. When I went shopping for the recipes that I picked out, I did fill my cart with vegetables, which was good, but when I started cooking, I realized how much oil and sugar his dishes used, which was not so good. But even though I had to mine for recipes, and even though the dishes might have had some less than healthy aspects, everything I cooked was indubitably delicious!
Ginger East To West is the most accessible of Bruce Cost’s three books, and so my favorite. I have the first edition; the Amazon link is to a revised and expanded edition (but all page numbers below are from the first edition). His subject is, obviously, ginger, and despite its slim size, this book is incredibly comprehensive. Even without the recipes, this is a great book through which to browse, maybe even to read cover to cover. I learned all sorts of interesting new factoids. Just to name a few: ginger has no trace of a wild ancestor; cardamoms are the seed pods of certain ginger family plants; Middle Eastern cuisine’s use of ginger is almost exclusively of dried ginger. His “cook’s tour” starts in China and, by way of (among others) India, Morocco, and Medieval Europe, ends in modern America. He does not neglect drinks, candy, or medicine, and even ends with an appendix on how to grow your own ginger (something Bruce does not seem to have done himself). Although there are, as mentioned above, too many (at least for me) meaty recipes, there are quite a few vegetarian dishes, the chapter on India being a big help in this regard. The recipes I tried were not terribly involved, nor were they that unusual, but all were just a little different and that much better than others of their ilk. There were a few recipes I have no intention of ever trying, yet made fascinating reading. Notable among these is a recipe for a Czech drink, “Krupnikas”, made with ginger and lots of other spices, two pounds of honey, and a quart of 190-proof Everclear.
I presented “Sichuan Cucumber Pickle” (page 73) as a cucumber salad at my table. Cucumbers are salted and, after a suitable amount of time has passed, squeezed. They are combined with rehydrated dried mushrooms and a dressing of oil, vinegar, sugar, Sichuan peppercorns, and, of course, lots of ginger. I made only a fraction of this recipe, using one long cucumber instead of three pounds of cucumber, but could (and perhaps should) have easily made more; this salad was quite good and much appreciated by my guests.
Carrots and ginger often appear together, and with good reason. “Fresh Carrot Relish” (page 105) was so easy, so good, and so healthy. You just chop up and combine carrots, onions, ginger, cilantro, and a hot green pepper, then dress with lime juice and season with salt and pepper. I did most of this in the food processor, so it took almost no time. This isn’t really something to eat by itself, but it perks up anything. We ate it with the lentil and spinach dish (below); a fine enough preparation, but stunning when combined with this carrot condiment. [Go to the recipe.]
“Curried Broccoli Soup with Cream” (page 151) was perhaps the most ordinary recipe I tried from this cookbook, but no less good for that. This is just a puréed soup of broccoli, ginger, and curry powder, with cream added. Bruce gives us the option of serving this soup hot or cold, but for us, barricaded in our dining room from the Arctic vortex outside, there was no choice: hot! The cold weather also increased our bodies’ craving for nourishing fat, so all the butter and cream in this soup were more appreciated than they would have been in the summer.
With “Indian Vichyssoise” (page 104), Bruce does not even suggest the hot option, but we also had this soup as a hot, not cold, soup. This soup is made with coconut milk, not milk or cream. Although butter and yogurt are added, neither is strictly necessary, so this could be turned into a vegan dish with only a few minor modifications. This soup had a intriguing taste, with green chilis, ginger, and mustard seeds added to the potatoes and coconut milk. As with the other Indian dishes from this cookbook, the Indian flavors were there, but were more finely nuanced than in many other Indian style dishes.
I did not do a very good job of following Bruce’s instructions for the presentation of “Palak Dal” (page 103). This is a fairly simple lentil and spinach dish. I used black lentils, although perhaps some more exotic Indian dal would have been better. Bruce suggests serving this dish with bowls of chopped fresh ginger, sour cream, and a spicy green mix of cilantro, mint, and hot peppers. Instead, I tossed the ginger in with the lentils and spinach, omitted the sour cream, but did make the spicy green condiment to serve on the side. The basic lentil and spinach preparation was quite plain, but with the green sauce, and especially with the carrot condiment (above), this was excellent, and perfect food for a cold winter day.
My standard zucchini preparation has, until now, been to cook zucchini rounds with onion, garlic, and tomato, but Bruce’s “Zucchini with Carrots and Ginger Shreds” (page 72) may start to share the limelight with the zucchini tomato dish. Instead of zucchini rounds, here we have zucchini sticks; instead of onion, garlic, and tomatoes, we have carrots, red bell pepper, and ginger. Stir fry it all together in the wok, and add a few drops of sesame oil for taste. This combination all works very well together.
There is a supposedly revised and updated edition of Bruce Cost’s Asian Ingredients: Buying and Cooking the Staple Foods of China, Japan and Southwest Asia, although at least one Amazon reviewer takes issue with just how revised and updated the new edition is. I have the original 1988 edition, and I think it is a little bit dated. This book is a guide to East Asian ingredients; brands are often mentioned, and companies do go in and out of business, as well as change the packaging of their products. The arrangement is encyclopedic, with write-ups on various ingredients, with the arrangement by type of ingredient (e.g., “Vegetables and Fungi”, “Salted and Cured Ingredients”, “Soybean Sauces, Condiments, and Pastes”, “Noodles”). Many entries are illustrated with small black and white photographs, rather unattractive and not all that useful. This book made me sad, in that too many of the ingredients were not ingredients I use in my kitchen, and too many of the recipes used these ingredients that I do not use. Nevertheless, I found a few things to cook, all smaller, more minor dishes.
Miso is a wonderful food, and seems to be more and more available, with many very good brands having hechshers. “Asparagus with Mustard-Misp Dressing” (page 208) is an excellent use of miso. Asparagus, an excellent vegetable for cold vegetable salads, is barely cooked, then combined with a dressing of miso, mustard, soy sauce, lemon, and vinegar. This salad was refreshing and healthy-tasting. [Go to the recipe.]
“Sautéed Eggplant with Black Vinegar” uses what was a new ingredient for me, Chinese black vinegar, made from grains such as wheat, millet, or sorghum, and aged. I could not find any of the recommended brands; in fact, the brands I found looked like junky imitation black vinegar, with added ingredients such as sugar and food coloring. I got a bottle that seemed to have the fewest noxious ingredients. This eggplant was very good, with a pleasing sweet and sour taste. I think, though, that I could have achieved the same, possibly better, results just using balsamic vinegar.
Daikon is an ingredient with which I would like to experiment more. “Daikon in Orange Peel Sauce” (page 69) was a recipe for cooked daikon, which was a new approach to daikon for me. Bruce used dried orange peels; I just used fresh. Perhaps his dried orange peels are more flavorful, as my sauce did not taste that orangey; as a remedy I added some orange juice. The sauce also had ginger, soy sauce, sugar, and Chinese rice wine. I could not find the Shaoxing wine (although I did not look too hard), and so substituted sake, knowing full well that sake is not an appropriate substitute for Shaoxing. The finally dish was quite satisfactory: it appeared as mystery vegetable in soy sauce.
I only made “Honeyed Pecans with Sesame Seeds” (page 268) because I was having problems finding recipes in this book suited to my kitchen. Ordinarily, I would be much happier just eating toasted pecans, but I decided to make this recipe as a dessert option for our guests. The idea is simple: pecans are cooked in a sugar and honey syrup, then rolled in toasted sesame seeds. They tasted good, but this really just seemed to be a way of turning a healthy food (pecans) into an unhealthy food (sugared pecans).
Bruce’s third book, Big Bowl Noodles and Rice: Fresh Asian Cooking From the Renowned Restaurant, stems from Bruce’s stint as “the culinary partner” in the Big Bowl restaurants, part of the Lettuce Entertain You group. Several Amazon reviewers complained that this book was not representative of their local Big Bowl restaurant. This I took as a good sign, as I trust the instincts of Bruce Cost over the menu of a chain restaurant (but admittedly, I have never been to a Big Bowl restaurant). This book was, however, very much a restaurant cookbook: many recipes appeared forbiddingly complicated, and there was frequent use of small amounts of ingredients whose unit of sale is a much larger amount. I also had the same problem that I had with Bruce’s other books: too many recipes with pork or shrimp or other products I do not use. Still, the recipes I found were really good.
As with the Sichuan cucumber pickle from the ginger book, I regarded “Spicy Daikon and Carrot Pickle” as a salad. Bruce calls for julienned daikon and carrot; I expect that julienne would have worked better, but I did not the patience and so just grated daikon and carrot in the food processor. The daikon and carrots are salted, left to sit, and then squeezed. They are then combined with cilantro and scallions, and a dressing of peanut and sesame oils, vinegar, sugar, ginger, Sichuan pepper, and hot peppers. Despite being grated, the vegetables held up quite well to a treatment that would have left jicama, say, limp and exhausted.
I expected to like “Kung Pao Chickenless Egg Noodles” (page 73) much more than I actually did, although make no mistake: this dish was still very good. The main ingredients here are Chinese egg noodles, fried tofu, and peanuts in a sauce with lots of hot pepper and garlic. Another ingredient of the sauce is hoisin sauce, and I was delighted to find a brand of this with a hechsher: Lee Kum Kee Vegetarian Hoisin Sauce. The sauce, despite its gutsy ingredients, seemed a little lacking to me, and there were too many peanuts. A good feature of this dish was that the sauce and noodles did not turn gummy, unlike many peanut or sesame noodles.
“Pad Thai with Wok-Seared Salmon” (page 96) was delightful when served with the salmon, but there were way too many noodles. The good news, though, was that the rice noodles, even without the salmon, were good. I used thin rice noodles instead of thicker Pad Thai rice noodles, since thin noodles were what was in my cabinet, but I used the same amount of thin noodles, weight-wise, as was specified for the wide noodles, so I cannot imagine that the type of noodle was responsible for their over-abundance.
The emphasis in “Sweet and Sour Cabbage” (page 155) is on the sweet. Cabbage is cooked, then tossed with a sauce of sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce. Bruce uses one half cup of sugar for a small head of cabbage; this, I thought was excessive, and so cut the amount of sugar in half. The dish I ended up with was sweet enough to be really good, but also sweet enough to suspect that there was more sugar present than was strictly healthy or necessary. I would have enjoyed this cabbage more if it had not been one of many dishes I served together with sugar as a flavoring agent. [Go to the recipe.]
So we see that Bruce Cost and his cookbooks are far from perfect, at least for the pisco-vegetarian, kashrut-observing, health conscious cook: too much meat, too much trayf, too much sugar and oil. But still, once a recipe with acceptable ingredients is found, it is going to taste good.
Adapted from Bruce Cost, Ginger East To West
½ pound carrots
½ white onion
½ bunch of cilantro, thick stems removed
1½ tablespoon ginger, chopped
1 small green hot pepper, seeded and chopped
Juice from 1 lime
Peel and clean the carrots, roughly chop the onion. Toss the carrots, onion, cilantro, ginger, and pepper into the food processor and pulse until the carrots are chopped into nice small chunks. I pre-chop the ginger and garlic as I do not trust the food processor to do the job. Add the lime juice to the vegetables, and add salt and pepper to taste.
Asparagus Salad with Miso Sauce
Adapted from Bruce Cost’s Asian Ingredients
1 pound asparagus
2 teaspoons mustard powder
2 teaspoon water
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon white (shiro) miso
2 teaspoons light (Japanese) soy sauce
Juice from ½ lemon
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 scallions, minced
Break off the stalky ends of the asparagus stalks. If you just snap off the ends, the stalk should naturally break where it is supposed to break. Chop the asparagus into 1 to 1½ inch lengths. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the asparagus, cook for 1 to 1½ minutes, then drain the asparagus and run it under cold water to stop the cooking. The asparagus should just barely be cooked.
Mix the mustard powder with the water and let it sit for 10 minutes. Whisk in the egg yolk, miso, soy sauce, lemon juice, and vinegar. Mix the asparagus with this dressing, and add the scallions.
Sweet and Sour Cabbage
Adapted from Bruce Cost, Big Bowl Noodles and Rice
1 small cabbage (1½ pounds)
3 tablespoons peanut oil
½ cup water
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1½ tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoons sesame oil
4 dried hot red peppers
Cut the cabbage into squares. Heat 2 tablespoons of the peanut oil in a wok. When the oil is hot, add the cabbage, and cook, stirring and tossing, until the cabbage is getting limp, 4 or 5 minutes. Remove the cabbage from the wok.
Mix together the water, sugar, salt, soy sauce, and cornstarch. Heat the remaining tablespoon of peanut oil and the sesame oil in the wok. Add the dried peppers and cook and stir until they start to blacken. Add the sauce, and cook and stir until the sauce thickens. Pour the sauce over the cabbage.