Monthly Archives: February 2014

Bruce Cost the Ginger Man

gingeraleWhen 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.

costxxxBruce 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!

gingerGinger 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.

cucandmushI 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.

carrotcondimentCarrots 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.]

brocsoup“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.

potsoupcostWith “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.

lentilspinachI 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.

zzMy 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.

ingredientsThere 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.

asparMiso 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.]

costeggplant“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.

daikonDaikon 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.

costpecansI 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).

bigbowlBruce’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.

daikonsaladAs 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.

noodleszI 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.

salmonpadthai“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.

costcabbageThe 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.


Carrot Condiment

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.

These Cookbooks Are Too Thick!

thick1Aliza Green’s two books, Starting with Ingredients and Starting with Ingredients: Baking are the two most awkward to handle books that I possess. They are each over 1000 pages, are printed on thick paper, do not open flat, and have a binding that encroaches upon the written material. The worst part about all this is that there is no good reason for the books to be like this. The lines of text are widely spaced; two pages could easily and readably fit on one page. The publishers, though, must have wanted an eye-catching book, one that book store browsers would spot on a shelf, spine out. Even so, the publishers could have had the book decently bound: the latest Joy of Cooking has just as many pages as either of Aliza’s two books, yet is quite manageable. Given this extreme dislike on my part of these books’ production and binding, I was almost hoping to dislike the recipes I tried. As it was, the recipes were quite adequate; some were even good.

thickxxthickzzThe gimmick (other than the unnecessary thickness) of Starting with Ingredients and its companion volume, Starting with Ingredients: Baking is to devote each chapter to a particular ingredient; 100 chapters in Starting with Ingredients  and 62 in  Starting with Ingredients: Baking The chapters are alphabetically ordered; in the first volume. Aliza hits every letter: almonds to zucchini, but “X-tras” for x is a bit of a stretch (I would suggest xanthan gum). In the second volume, Aliza goes from “Alcohols” to “Yogurt”, this time skipping a few letters (i, j, k, n, t, u, z). Each chapter begins with a page or two about its particular food item: its history, its use in different parts of the world, the varieties available. There are several boxes in each chapter filled with random factoids, or with useful information about the food item that did not fit elsewhere. All this prose is a bit too light weight to consider these books reference books, but might be enjoyable just to read for pleasure if only these books were not so unwieldy. Each chapter ends with the recipes, with an average of about six recipes per chapter. These books are subtitled “Quintessential Recipes for the Way We Really Cook [Bake]”; true to this subtitle, the recipes are fairly ordinary and unexceptional, which does not mean that the recipes cannot be good. However, I like to look for recipes in cookbooks that are not the way I usually cook.

Let us first consider recipes from Starting with Ingredients.

eggplantsaladxxI had a problem following the directions for “Rumanian Chopped Eggplant Salad” (page 387). Ideally, we are to grill the vegetables for this salad; as an alternative, we may bake the eggplant and broil the peppers and onions. The chopped up vegetables are then combined with raw garlic, oil, vinegar, a little bit of sugar, and salt. I took the no grill path; baking the eggplant was no problem, but broiling the peppers and onion was less satisfactory. The onion just started burning on the exposed parts without cooking elsewhere. The peppers were headed for burnt skin too, which I could have peeled off, but that was not what the recipe seemed to want. I ended up abandoning the broiler and chopping up the onion and peppers in the food processor, then cooking then in olive oil with the baked eggplant flesh. This ended up being a very pleasant dish. The small amount of sugar (one tablespoon for two pounds of eggplant) was a nice touch: the dish tasted much sweeter than I would have predicted.

jicamax“Yucaton-Style Jicama Sticks” (page 500) is a very simple recipe. Batons of jicama are dressed with lime juice, cumin, chili powder, hot sauce, and salt. Again, this dish did not really conform to my expectations. With the chili powder (for which I used Korean chili powder) and hot sauce (Frank’s; I’m still out of sriracha), I was expecting a much hotter dish. There was indeed some heat, but it perfectly complemented the sweet crunchiness of the jicama. [Go to the recipe.]

Unsuccessful copy

Unsuccessful copy

Ingredient list

Ingredient list

I like to make copies of the recipes from which I cook, mainly so that I do not spill food on my cookbooks, but also to have a record of what I have cooked. However, with these cookbooks, recipes from the middle with the ingredient list near the spine were impossible to copy. Such was the case with “Alpine Mushroom, Celery, and Gruyère Salad” (page 221); nevertheless, I persevered, and just wrote the ingredients by hand on the back of the unsuccessful copy. I should not have bothered. mushsaladThis dish was less than the sum of its parts. Each one of the ingredients would have been better just eaten alone (with the possible exception of the pepper). Furthermore, the recipe made an enormous amount of salad. I halved the recipe, but after one meal with just the two of us, and one meal with guests, there was still lots of this stuff left over. The salad was not inedible; I actually had seconds when we had guests over and I was in a positive frame of mind, but the salad was still not terribly good. By the way, the recipe in the second column of page 221, which was successfully copied, looks as if it might have possibilities.

artsoup“Artichoke and Toasted Hazelnut Soup” (page 56) looked quite promising. I have recently discovered frozen artichokes at Trader Joe’s (I have found them nowhere else in Ann Arbor), and I have a recipe for pecan soup (from The New York Times) that I particularly like.  However, like the three recipes above, this one also did not conform to my expectations. In this case, the soup was strangely tasteless. I resorted to salt at the table to perk it up. There is a flaw in the copy-editing of this recipe. A listed ingredient is Wondra flour; in the recipe body this ingredient is referred to as “rice flour” (Wondra is made of wheat).

mushandnoodlesI did not make “Hungarian Mushroom Soup: Gombaleves” (page 595) as a soup. I had the artichoke hazelnut soup, and wanted another solid main dish. Thus I held back on the liquid and mixed the resulting sauce with noodles. Any dish made with noodles, mushrooms, and sour cream is going to please me and this dish was no exception. It was not a stunning presentation, but was hot and filling.

wrtimbale“Timbale of Wild Rice and Sun-Dried Cherries” (page 981), unlike most of the other recipes, turned out exactly as I expected it to turn out. The title of this recipe says it all: wild rice, cherries, and currants are bound with egg and baked. Aliza wants us to cook two cups of wild rice in six cups of broth; this is too high a broth to rice ratio. The cooked timbales did not hold together that well, and one timbale made a very generous individual serving. I think this recipe would have worked better cooked in one large pan.

I did not try that many recipes from Aliza’s baking book since just the two of us do not eat that many baked goods. I was initially planning on baking my weekly bread from Starting with Ingredients: Baking, but none of the bread recipes appealed to me. All of the bread recipes just had too many ingredients. which is not the way I “really bake”, and although I like novel bread recipes, I do not like that novelty to come from a cupboard of add-in ingredients.

chakOne way I got around making too many baked goods was to test the recipe for “Chakchouka (Tunisian Vegetable Stew)” (page 865), which appears in the book as something to put on “Tunisian Semolina Griddle Bread” (page 864) (which I did not make). Aliza’s recipe is not the best version of shakshouka (the more usual spelling) that I have had. It is too heavy with bell peppers. Even so, this sauce was quite good with eggs poached in it.

turkcornbrI am not a huge fan of cornbread, so I prefer a tarted-up cornbread such as “Turkish Savory Cornbread (Misir Ekmedi)” (page 388). This is a basic cornbread, with added olives, feta cheese, red pepper flakes, and dill. The recipe also calls for nigella seeds; I did not add these since none of my regular stops sold nigella seeds, and in this winter weather I am disinclined to go out of my way to get a minor ingredient for a recipe I might not like that much anyway. The recipe turned out fine, yet I suspect that people who like cornbreasd will not like all the extra stuff in the cornbread, and people who do not like cornbread, will not like it that much more with the added ingredients.

blackberrytart“Almond-Crusted Blackberry-Tangerine Pie” (page 161) was very good, although I used an orange instead of a tangerine. I only made this because I found myself with a couple of packs of blackberries that I had gotten for my book group to munch on before I realized that I had the wrong date. Finally, I had found a good use for these cookbooks (other than pressing four-leaf clovers or keeping doors open). I had an ingredient, one with which I do not usually cook, and I needed to do something with it. And so the berry chapter of Starting with Ingredients: Baking came to the rescue. For the crust, Aliza uses her “Butter Pie Pastry” (page 203), with almond butter replacing some of the butter. I like this idea, and think it is superior to using ground up almonds to replace some of the flour. The filling is thickened with tapioca starch. I used very little sugar (at least compared to what I might usually use), and so we did not feel too decadent when we enjoyed this tart. [Go to the recipe.]


Jicama Sticks

Adapted from Aliza Green, Starting with Ingredients

1 medium jicama root
Juice of 1 lime
½ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons chili powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Hot sauce

Peel the jicama root, slice it into approximately ¼ inch slices, then cut the slices into batons. Mix together the lime juice, salt, chili powder, and cumin. Add hot sauce to taste; I used several vigorous shakes of Frank’s Red Hot. Combine the jicama with the sauce.


Blackberry Tart

Adapted from Aliza Green,  Starting with Ingredients: Baking

1½ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons almond butter
½ teaspoon cider vinegar
3-6 tablespoons water

1 pound blackberries
¼ cup light brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch salt
Juice and grated zest from ½ organic orange
3 tablespoons tapioca starch
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat the oven to 450º. Make the crust. I do this in the food processor, as follows. Put the flour and salt in the food processor bowl (steel blade), and add the butter and almond butter. Pulse until the largest pieces of butter are less than pea-sized. Add the water and pulse until the dough starts to come together. I always end up using more water, rather than less. Form the dough into two balls, one slightly larger than the other, and let the dough rest while you make the filling.

To make the filling, mix all the filling ingredients except for the butter together.

Roll out the larger piece of dough into a circle, large enough to line a 9 inch tart pan. Fit the crust into the 9 inch tart pan; I like to double the edges. Roll out the other ball of dough and cut it into strips for a lattice top. Add the filling, and dot the filling with pieces of butter. Either weave a lattice top, or be lazy and put horizontal strips on top of vertical strips. If you are worried that the tart might leak in the oven, put it on a foil lined baking sheet.

Bake the tart at 450º for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350º and bake until the filling is bubbly and the crust is brown, perhaps another 30 minutes. I like this tart warm with lightly sweetened whipped cream; warm with vanilla ice cream would probably also be delicious.