Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mapo Doufu

My experience with "Chinese food" has been pretty limited; like probably the majority of North Americans, I'm most familiar with the greasy, questionable kind of stuff that I imagine is largely tailored to Western fast food tastes. Aside from an okay dim sum experience and some decent dishes at nicer restaurants, I had pretty much written off Chinese food as something too often deep-fried, sugar and MSG-filled and unhealthy to risk filling my stomach with so I essentially ignorantly swore it off for the past few years. Of course, I knew that behind the food court combo fare there must be an ancient and advanced culinary tradition, I just didn't know where to find it - or what to order! I think the language barrier is actually a big disadvantage for people unfamiliar with Chinese cuisine; they can't read the Chinese names on the menu and English descriptions are often something very un-descriptive like "Beef in Black Bean Sauce" or "Pork with Green Peppers". That's not very encouraging to (unadventurous) people who prefer to stick with what they know rather than gamble on a potentially unpleasant surprise. Unfortunately, this leads to the impression that the vast and daunting world of Chinese cuisine begins with Ginger Beef and ends with Sweet and Sour Pork. Anyway, I knew I was missing out!

I first got excited about Szechuan/Sichuan cuisine thanks to Anthony Bourdain's TV show "No Reservations". I never knew it was centered around a variety of really unique spices, known for being spicy and fragrant which is a flavor combination guaranteed to catch my interest. Some of the plates displayed on the show looked about 90% chile peppers, I was really curious to try it but apparently it's hard to find that kind of "authentic" dish outside of Sichuan province and I didn't have any good recommendations for a local restaurant. I never considered trying to cook this kind of thing at home until I saw a recipe for Mapo Tofu posted by Vincci on Ceci n'est pas un food blog. Thanks to her detailed descriptions and clarification of ingredients, I was able to hold my iPhone up to a shelf of bean paste and match the Chinese characters properly!

Pi Xian Broad Bean Sauce and Sichuan Peppercorn "Prickly Ash"

There were a lot of different broad bean sauces and pastes but only one that I saw marked Pi Xian so I bought it...a kilogram of it. It seemed like a good deal at just over $3 but I now have an ominous, dense 1kg bag of powerfully fermented broad bean loaded with bits of hot pepper. It's amazing and very potent, I could smell it unmistakably through the packaging even though it was sealed in plastic, wrapped in paper and another layer of plastic, and I wouldn't hesitate to describe it as demonic or at least malevolent, possibly borderline haunted. I have a feeling I'm going to be adding spoonfuls of it to a lot of other stuff I cook, I've already used it to power up some fried rice. I really hope I can find some more recipes that give me an opportunity to make use of both of these signature Sichuan ingredients. The peppercorns were like a totally new flavor to me, I was really impressed. It wasn't quite spicy enough for me so I'll probably add more Pi Xian Douban next time but it's a really interesting, numbing sort of spicy sensation, made even more interesting by the floral/sour/citric undertones of the peppercorns.

Toasted peppercorns.

Mapo doufu/tofu with brown rice and baby bok choy

I followed this recipe exactly, using ground beef and excluding Shaoxing wine. It was one of the best things I've ever cooked and I'm already planning to make it again!

Recipe after the jump.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Frozen Grapes

I don't know how it took over two decades of being alive for me to start putting grapes in the freezer! It's such a simple and easy thing to do and totally changes a grape into a refreshing, icy treat; they're like small, oval popsicles and can even be used as substitute ice cubes that won't melt and dilute your drink. Unlike most other fruits, they don't go totally rock solid when frozen but maintain a slight slushiness so they're always ready to eat. It goes without saying that frozen grapes are a great thing to have on hand in the summer but it's easy enough to just keep a bag of grapes in the freezer year round.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Splitz Grill

A few days ago we made our way to Splitz Grill in 30+ degree weather and arrived dizzy with hunger. These burgers were the perfect remedy to prevent our stomachs from shrinking any further since Splitz offers a wide variety of sauces and toppings and piles them on as per your request. We didn't order any fries (though we have eaten them before and they are good) and the burger alone was enough to fill us up.

We each ordered a one patty Legendary Splitz Burger - the cheapest option on the menu. Even though it's the smallest of the beef burgers it's still a decent size and probably large enough to satisfy the average hungry customer - especially if they load up on toppings like we did. Omitting a few of the sauces, everything else was stacked on top of our patties; sprouts, salsa, even sauerkraut; there's a lot to choose from and somehow it all tastes good together. Certain toppings, like cheese, bacon, mushrooms and sauteed onions cost extra ($1.00+ each) so if you want ALL of the extras you'll be paying more than $10 for your burger, which for us is a bit steep. We didn't order any extras since we can't justify spending that much for a couple pieces of bacon or a slice of cheese but I imagine their burgers taste pretty incredible with everything.

The meat was generously seasoned, juicy and really flavorful. One of my favorite things about Splitz Grill is that their meat isn't greasy; sometimes at other burger establishments I leave feeling a bit sick to my stomach from the excess grease but the meat at Splitz seems really fresh and light in comparison. I don't know if it's a result of how they cook their patties or if the meat is better quality but for me it is a noticeable difference. I love being able to eat a giant burger and leave feeling nourished instead of like I've inhaled a bunch of unhealthy junk food.

We haven't tried a lot of the burger options available in Vancouver but out of the places we have tried, we feel that Splitz is the best.

Splitz Grill on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Creamy Chiles Rellenos

Chiles Rellenos are traditionally battered and fried, crispy and fattening. My mother initially created this recipe for a lighter alternative, skipping the heavy exterior and replacing it with a creamy sauce. This is much easier to make than the fried version; all you need is basic kitchenware and fresh ingredients. Although these peppers aren't fried, I can't say they aren't fattening since they're still packed with cheese! I don't mind the fat, I'll eat just about anything (in moderation) - I just wish I would make the time to cook these more often.

The beans are so simple that they don't require a recipe; I just heat up some olive oil, minced garlic and Mexican chili powder, add romano beans from a can and mash it all up. Lazy, I know...but so fast and still full of great flavor. For me, beans are an essential part of any Mexican meal, the perfect addition to an infinite number of dishes - even from a can I still must have them!

Back to the peppers...this recipe will probably always be one of my favorites. I think that certain foods from childhood always hold a special appeal; they bring up warm memories and no matter how wonderful the food can be at nice restaurants, nothing is comforting like my mom's cooking.

Recipe after the jump.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Unexpected Favorite

These danishes were a perfect breakfast with some coffee to offset the sweetness. I know that lemon and cherry are the most popular/classic flavors but apple was the best; not too sweet and whole chunks of apple to add some nice texture and a bit of crunch.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Poutine seems to be a polarizing concept; a lot of people are apparently grossed out by the idea of combining fries with gravy and cheese but most of those people have probably never given poutine a real chance. The poutine in the photo is from Belgian Fries, which, as well as offering a Belgian condiment choice, claims to serve "the best poutine outside of Quebec" (where the dish is a beloved, traditional fixture) though there are a few popular places around the city so the West Coast has its share of poutine lovers too. I've heard most local places use a miso-based gravy so it's a vegetarian dish, I'm not really sure how they make such a gravy-tasting gravy out of miso but I know you can tell cheese curds are optimal by their squeakiness. The combination of freshly cooked fries, hot gravy and melting, squeaky cheese is a sublime delight and I hope the "ew gross" crowd can one day let poutine into their hearts.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Chikara Udon with Mochi at Japanese Festival

The Powell Street Japanese Festival had a lot of very popular food stalls, the lineup for takoyaki looked about 20 minutes long. We chose one that had a shorter line (probably less popular because it was serving mostly hot food on a hot, sunny day), they were grilling mochi on a barbecue and selling a few kinds of udon. Even though it was so hot, we ordered Chikara Udon (udon with toasted mochi) and "zenzai" - mochi topped with a sweet red bean mash (not pictured), both $2.50. An iced coffee was necessary to cool down afterwards.