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Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic, or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation? (Liang Wei, The Last Chinese Chef)
The opening of the novel The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones intrigued me and what followed was a very pleasant read. It was also a thought-provoking one.
Chinese cooking accumulates greatness in the pursuit of artifice. Although we say our goal is xian, the untouched natural flavor of a thing, in fact we often concoct that flavor by adding many things which then must become invisible. Thus flavor is part quality of ingredients and part sleight of hand. The latter can go to extremes.The gourmet loves nothing more than to see a glazed duck come to the table, heady and strong with what must be the aromatic nong of meat juices, only to find the “duck” composed entirely of vegetables. The superior cook strives to please the mind as well as the appetite. (Liang Wei, The Last Chinese Chef)
What is described in the excerpt above is an approach to food (preparing it and savoring it) that is quite foreign to me, and it made me think. The two excerpts are quotes from a book that is a fiction-within-a-fiction (a fictional memoir within a fiction, to be precise). In the next one, Liang Wei reminisces about his teacher, Lord Tan:
When I went out into the city it was with Tan Zhuanqing. He liked to select his own provisions. Everyone knew him. He was famous. I heard people ask him: Why not leave the palace? Open your own restaurant. And he would always say there could be no higher calling than cooking for the Emperor. He was correct. But behind that truth was another one, which was that he also cooked for the cognoscenti. The gourmet was as important as the chef. Liang tiao tui zou: the art walks on two legs. To have one, you must have the other.
I enjoyed reading the story of chef Sam Liang, of how he develops his sumptuous banquet (banchetto), how he relates to his uncles, his father (who is Liang Wei's son), his complex heritage and to Maggie (the female protagonist). The novel is rich in characters and events and therefore giving even a brief outline is hard. Hence, I won't try and prefer to invite you to read it.
In the episode that inspired me, the platter of "plain food" prepared as part of the banquet menu lands on the floor, a mishap that destroys the carrier of the flavor of 30 crabs (granchi, singular granchio). What intrigued me was the concept of tofu boiled until it becomes spongy and able to absorbs a sauce, crab reduction sauce in this case. The guest thinks he or she is eating plain tofu, but at the first bite, the unsuspecting taste buds get a jolt:
"It looks like tofu — a peasant dish —when it comes to the table. Then the crab squirts out when you bite into it. So good."
Making a reduction sauce from 30 crabs was outside my range of possibilities, but I thought this would be my chance to finally do something I had never done before: prepare a dish with tofu as one of the ingredients. The four ears of sweet corn (pannocchie di granturco)1 I found in this week CSA box provided another inspirational element to the enterprise. I had just made some vegetable stock using corn cobs — based on the recipe for Quick Stock in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison — so the idea of corn soup took shape in my mind. The question was: would spongy tofu soak up creamy corn soup?
Before I could answer the question, I had to make the soup. I wanted the corn to be roasted, because that is how I like it best, and so proceeded to do that at 450 F for 20 minutes. When it was cool, I removed the husks and silk and used a knife to get the kernels and scrapings. I briefly cooked a thinly sliced shallot (scalogno) in warm olive oil (olio d'oliva), then added to it a cup of my vegetable stock and cooked, covered, for 10 minutes. I then added the corn, a small Divina potato (patata), peeled and grated, and 1.5 cups of water (see Note below). I brought to a boil and cooked, partially covered, for 20 minutes. I puréed the soup with my immersion blender and then pushed it through a mesh strainer — I got this and other ideas implemented in this recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I seasoned the soup with salt and some finely chopped fresh herbs: 3 leaves of lovage (sedano di monte, from my garden) and 3 of basil (basilico). Note: The resulting purée was rather thick, which is fine with me, since I like thick soups. If you prefer a thinner soup, add more water in the relevant step. The quantity of water also depends on the amount of corn you get from your ears: I'd say that mine were medium-size.
From a block of tofu, I cut a 4 oz piece and cut it in small cubes, which I then boiled for 30 minutes. At the end, the tofu did not look much different from what had been at the beginning, but I didn't let that deter me from continuing with my recipe. A nice, ripe, red tomato (pomodoro) also came out of my CSA box: I made an X-shaped incision at its bottom and added it to the water where the tofu was boiling and kept it there for less than a minute, which allowed me to easily remove its skin. I seeded and diced half of it and set it aside.
Finally, it was time to assemble the dish: I placed a bit of tofu at the bottom of the bowl, poured over it two ladlefuls of corn soup and dropped some of the diced tomatoes on top. Taking photographs of the bowl was the hardest part. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have a new camera and I am still completely inept with it. The photo op over, it was time to get the taste buds into the action. I am happy to report that the soup was excellent. The spongy tofu experiment did not work as expected, but that detracted nothing from the dish. Tofu added texture without cluttering the flavor space, which was dominated by the roasted sweet corn, underlined by the fresh herbs and complemented by the tomato. Both my husband and I had seconds and in so doing cleaned the soup pot.
In reading again the inspiring section of the book, I realized I did not follow the description in two details, which may explain the difference between my result and what I was trying to obtain:
[H]e dropped in the slices of spongy tofu, immersing them. "This cooks on low. The tofu will drink up all the sauce."
My tofu was cut in small cubes, not slices, and I did not cook it on low with the soup. So, I have some elements to guide me in my next realization of this recipe. That I will make it again is a certainty, because it was "so good." Update: a report on my second attempt and on my third one.
This is my contribution to the fourth edition of Cook the Books, hosted by Deb of Kahakai Kitchen. You can find the guidelines for participating in the event here, and here is the announcement of the current edition. Finally, here's the roundup.
My crema di mais con tofu e pomodoro is not a Chinese dish. One could say that my choice of ingredients (basil, tomato) harks more to my country of origin. The way I see it, the story of The Last Chinese Chef is also a story of reconnecting to one's heritage or past, of embracing it, and linking it to other elements of one's experience. In this soup, I married elements of my Italian culinary experience (tomato and basil) to an element of my adoptive country (corn) and to an element (tofu) that was foreign to me until I moved to the US and was exposed to Asian culinary traditions.
1 Both mais and granturco mean corn in Italian.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
crema di mais con tofu e pomodoro
or launch the crema di mais con tofu e pomodoro audio file [mp3].
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crema di mais con tofu e pomodoro
Questo post trova ispirazione nel romanzo L'ultimo chef cinese di Nicole Moines, lettura tanto piacevole quanto stimolante, per lo sguardo sulla cultura gastronomica cinese che offre.
Ho letto il romanzo nell'ambito del Cook the Books club e un episodio verso la fine del racconto mi ha ispirato a preparare questa crema di mais con tofu e pomodoro. Non è un piatto cinese, ma contiene tofu, un ingrediente che fino ad oggi non avevo mai usato in cucina, pur avendolo mangiato innumerevoli volte. Nell'episodio in questione, il tofu viene bollito fino a diventare spugnoso, e poi viene immerso in una salsa densa ottenuta da 30 granchi. L'idea è che quando viene servito, il commensale pensa che sia semplice tofu, ma quando ne mette in bocca un pezzo, la salsa di granchio schizza fuori, sorprendendo il palato con il suo sapore inaspettato e intenso.
Fare una salsa di granchio non era pensabile. L'idea della crema di mais me l'hanno data le quattro pannocchie appena colte che ho trovato nella scatola che ho ricevuto questa settimana dalla mia CSA e il fatto che un paio di giorni prima avevo preparato del brodo vegetale utilizzando, tra gli altri ingredienti, pannocchie vuote. Per la realizzazione delle ricetta ho tratto idee dal mio fedele libro di cucina Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone di Deborah Madison.
Le pannocchie le ho arrostite in forno a 230 C per 20 minuti (senza rimuovere le foglie esterne), poi ho rimosso foglie e fili e ho tagliato i chicchi col coltello (se non lo avete mai fatto, guardate questo video). In una pentola, ho scaldato un po' d'olio d'oliva e ho aggiunto uno scalogno tagliato sottile, ho girato e poi ho aggiunto 250 ml del brodo vegetale di cui sopra. Ho fatto bollire per 10 minuti e poi ho aggiunto il mais, una piccola patata sbucciata e grattata, e 350 ml d'acqua (vedi Nota sotto). Ho portato ad ebollizione e ho cotto per 20 minuti a pentola parzialmente coperta. Col mixer ad immersione ho ridotto il tutto a una crema che ho poi filtrato con un passino. Alla fine, ho aggiustato il sale e ho aggiunto 3 foglioline di sedano di monte (che cresce nel mio orticello) e 3 di basilico tagliate fine. Nota: La mia crema è venuta piuttosto densa, come piace a me. Se volete una consistenza più liquida, aggiungete più acqua. La quantità di acqua dipende anche dalla quantità di mais che ottenete dalle pannocchie: le mie direi che erano di dimensioni medie.
Il libro dice che il tofu diventa spugnoso se bolle per mezz'ora. Ho tagliato a cubetti 120 g di tofu e l'ho fatto bollire come descritto. Al termine della cottura, non mi è sembrato molto diverso da come era all'inizio, ma questo non mi ha scoraggiato nel procedere con la mia ricetta. Dalla scatola della CSA ho tirato fuori un bel pomodoro maturo e dopo aver fatto un'incisione ad X alla base, l'ho messo nella pentola con il tofu per poco tempo, poi l'ho pelato e tagliato a metà. Una metà l'ho tagliata a dadini, dopo aver rimosso is semi.
A questo punto, tutto era pronto per l'assemblaggio finale. In ognuna delle due ciotole (una per me e una per mio marito) ho messo un po' di tofu, poi ho versato sopra due mestoli di crema e infine ho depositato sulla superficie del pomodoro. Fare foto è stato difficile, poiché come ho spiegato nel mio post precedente, ho una macchina fotografica nuova e sono ancora del tutto imbranata quanto tento di usarla. Finite le foto, ci siamo dati all'assaggio e devo dire che le nostre papille gustative hanno gradito molto la crema di mais. Il tofu non era affatto spugnoso, ma questo non ha rovinato il piatto. Sapori e strutture di tutti gli ingredienti hanno funzionato molto bene insieme. Sia io che mio marito ci siamo serviti una seconda porzione e, ciò facendo, abbiamo pulito la pentola.
Rileggendo il passo del libro che mi ha ispirato, mi sono resa conto di non aver seguito le indicazioni in due punti, il che potrebbe spiegare la differenza tra il mio risultato e quello che mi aspettavo. Lo chef, Sam Liang, immerge fettine di tofu nella salsa di granchio e poi dice: "Questo cuoce a fuoco lento. Il tofu assorbirà la salsa." Il mio tofu era tagliato a cubetti invece che a fettine e non l'ho fatto cuocere a fuoco lento con la crema di mais. Quindi, ho delle indicazioni che mi guideranno la prossima volta che realizzo questa ricetta. Sono sicura che la faro di nuovo, perché è davvero buona. Aggiornamento: risultato del mio secondo tentativo e del terzo.
It sounds delicious! I love corn, and maybe I will make the soup tonight.
Posted by: Laura | August 29, 2009 at 08:00 AM
Non ho mai cucinato il mais e proprio alcune settimane fa ero tentata dall'acquisto osservando delle bellissime pannocchie, ma poi ho desistito.
L'idea della crema mi piace molto :))
Posted by: lenny | August 29, 2009 at 08:03 AM
Love the sound of this! I'm really imagining the flavors.
Posted by: Kalyn | August 29, 2009 at 08:39 AM
Brava! A most thoughtful and delicious post!
Posted by: Rachel | August 29, 2009 at 10:52 AM
Thanks, Laura. I think that roasting the corn makes for a more intense flavor. Let me know if you try it.
Ciao Lenny. Anche io non avevo mai cucinato il mais fino a che sono rimasta in Italia. Qui e' molto tradizionale, soprattutto grigliato, e a mio marito piace molto. Ora che ci ho preso la mano, e' una cosa che consiglio. E adesso si trovano le pannocchie appena colte.
Hi Kalyn. The flavors are a nice combination. I can't wait to make it again.
Posted by: Simona Carini | August 29, 2009 at 01:54 PM
I like memoirs, even if in this case it's fictional. Interesting-sounding book. You've made me very hungry. ;-)
Posted by: Paz | August 29, 2009 at 07:39 PM
That sounds delicious! I would love to try the concentrated essence of 30 crabs but like you thought that was an undertaking beyond me!
Posted by: Foodycat | August 30, 2009 at 04:14 AM
An interesting interpretation of the food found in the novel. I love your twist on Sam's dish.
Posted by: Arlene | August 30, 2009 at 07:14 AM
tofu is still one of those ingredients that is simply not available in crete, so i wasn't able to uise it in my own choice for cook the books - great idea, and i love the tomatos on top
Posted by: maria | August 30, 2009 at 09:38 AM
Ciao Paz. I recommend the book: it's very nice.
Hi Foodycat. I am wondering how big they are. Still, the image I have is that of a mountain of crab shells.
That's interesting, Maria. I imagine that the same is true in other parts of the Mediterranean.
Posted by: Simona Carini | August 31, 2009 at 11:18 PM
That 30 crab tofu sounds amazing, and your soup sounds mighty delicious as well! I need to look into that tofu process.
Posted by: Lori Lynn @ Taste With The Eyes | September 01, 2009 at 10:53 AM
My Dear Simona!
I find this book very intriguing indeed! (apart from the crabs.. :( ).
I enjoy very much the philosophical takes on the preparation of food..I might just look this book up!I also enjoy very much your creative adaptation!Brava!
Posted by: mia | September 02, 2009 at 02:14 PM
bè ora dopo il mio viaggio , mi sento quasi "obbligata" a leggere questo libro ;-)) la crema di mais non mi è nuova...ma il tofu invece mi è sconosciuto....mi dovrò aggiornare, ciao un bacio!
Posted by: astrofiammante | September 03, 2009 at 07:14 AM
The book sounds very interesting and your version of the soup sounds great.
Posted by: Ivy | September 05, 2009 at 08:14 AM
Indeed, Lori Lynn. I am trying to imagine how intense the flavor was.
Ciao Mia. I hope you'll be able to find the book. It is a pleasant reading overall and the story of the Last Chinese Chef is very interesting.
Ciao Astro. Quando ho scorperto che il libro e' stato tradotto in italiano, ti ho pensata subito. Fammi sapere se lo leggi e cosa ne pensi.
It is very interesting, Ivy, and a really pleasant read. Thanks.
Posted by: Simona Carini | September 05, 2009 at 04:51 PM
I will try to Simona..I also really enjoyed the way you interpreted the principles of integrating the embrace of your own culture with newly adapted elements of a foreign culture..such a loevly way of seeing it... *
Posted by: mia | September 06, 2009 at 04:33 AM
I love your line, "...without cluttering up the flavor space." That was great. And you are so right about the theme of reconnecting with one's heritage. I really, really enjoyed that book. More than I had expected to. Your soup sounds delicious.
Posted by: Lisa | September 09, 2009 at 05:31 PM
Thanks, Lisa. The soup beat my expectations. It was a pleasant adventure.
Posted by: Simona Carini | September 10, 2009 at 10:19 PM
This is nice post. I like corn soup and corn recipe.
The taste of corn soup is yummy and its also good for health.
Posted by: creatinine | October 02, 2009 at 01:58 AM