The excellence and unparalleled repertory of Chinese vegetable cookery grows directly out of the Buddhist tradition, which prohibits the eating of meat. This tradition, however, places great stress on culinary skills, with these skills being devoted exclusively to the preparation of vegetables. At Buddhist banquets in China, where ten or more vegetarian dishes were served, a fantastic ingenuity would be demonstrated. Not only were these dishes tremendously varied, but they also included artful and convincing reconstructions that looked for all the world like chicken, fish, ham and duck. Their actual ingredients, however, were bean curd, vegetables and flour.
The Chinese consider vegetables as savories in their own right, to be prepared with as much care as fish or fowl. Chinese vegetable dishes are characterized by crispness, excellent flavor and bright color. The vegetable, in fact, looks as fresh as it did before cooking. The secret: it has not been cooked to death but only partially cooked until half tender and half crunchy. Chinese vegetables are never soft, with the color and flavor boiled out of them, but neither are they raw.
In Chinese vegetable cookery, the technique is primary and the vegetable secondary: once the method is understood, one vegetable can readily substitute for another. Any vegetable, whether. it be a familiar domestic variety or a uniquely Chinese one, * can be cooked the Chinese way.
* Some of these, sold fresh in Chinese food stores, are grown on Chinese farms in California, New Jersey and Florida others are imported canned and dried from the Orient.
Depending on the nature of the vegetable and how it's cut, it may be stir-fried, braised, steamed or deep-fried. Stir-frying, the most typical technique, calls for the vegetable to be tossed quickly first in a small amount of peanut oil or lard, then to finish cooking in the juices it generates itself, or in liquid which is added later. The pan must be well heated before the oil is added. When the oil begins to sizzle, salt (which makes green vegetables turn a brighter green) is added, and then the vegetable itself. The vegetable is quickly stir-fried or tossed until it becomes coated with the oil. (If the oil is not hot enough at this point, the vegetable will become soft, limp and watery. However, once the vegetable is in the pot, the heat of the oil must be reduced slightly to prevent scorching.)
Soft vegetables such as spinach, lettuce, water cress tomatoes and bean sprouts generally need no additional liquid. When subjected to heat, they quickly render up their own juices and continue cooking in them. (In the case of leafy vegetables, enough liquid will cling to the vegetable after washing to keep it from sticking to the pan until it does render up its own juices.) Still other soft vegetables, like mushrooms and zucchini, can be stir-fried in oil for a minute, then cooked, covered, for another minute or two without additional liquids.
With hard and semi-hard vegetables, additional liquid must be added. (Hard vegetables include asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, string beans and turnips. The semi-hard are bamboo shoots, bitter melon, celery, lotus root, mustard cabbage and snow peas.) Except of course in soup, the Chinese-style vegetable is never cooked in any more liquid than is absolutely necessary. Just enough is added to enable the vegetable to render up and steam in its own juices. The liquid used may be stock or water. (Stock is preferred because it enhances and enriches the vegetable's flavor.) It is added after the vegetable has been well coated with oil, and is poured not directly over the vegetable but down the sides of the pan to heat. The pan is then covered tightly and the vegetable steamed until done.
This stir-frying or quick-cooking method has many advantages: it retains the vegetable's individual characteristics, its color, texture and taste. The hot oil seals in the vegetable's juices, while at the same time extracting its flavor. Since there are no excess liquids to pour down the drain, the vegetable's valuable vitamin and mineral content is not lost.
When several vegetables are cooked together, those needing longer cooking time (onions, celery, green peppers) go into the pan first, while the more tender ones (spinach, bean sprouts, tomatoes) go in last. In the case of vegetables with stalks and leaves (such as Chinese cabbage), the stalks, being tougher, go into the pan first the soft, tender leaves are added at the last minute only to be heated through.
Hard and semi-hard green vegetables should be cooked, covered, as briefly as possible, to retain their fresh color. The cover should never be lifted more than once during cooking. If it is, the vegetable will turn yellowish. A good method of color retention is to blanch or parboil the vegetable first. This will reduce the time the vegetable needs to be cooked covered. Blanching and parboiling are described in the HOW-TO chapter.
The color in vegetable cookery is important, but not only for aesthetic reasons. With green vegetables, it indicates when the vegetable is done. As a green vegetable cooks, it turns successively from bright green to dark green to olive drab. When it's somewhere between bright and dark green, it should be removed from the heat.
Vegetables, depending on their own nature and the nature of the ingredients they're to be cooked with, may be sliced, diced, minced or shredded. As often as possible, they should be cut in shapes to match the other ingredients. Soft vegetables are sliced straight or vertically hard and semi-hard vegetables are cut diagonally. As a rule, vegetables should not be cut until actually ready to use (they will dry out or wilt). If they must be cut up in advance, they should be wrapped well, in transparent wrap or foil, and refrigerated.
Vegetables, after being stir-fried in oil, are frequently seasoned with soy sauce, then stir-fried a minute or so longer. (When additional liquid is needed, it's added afterward.) Another common seasoning for vegetables is sugar, added in small quantities at the very end. When the sugar is mixed with vinegar (in the ratio of 1 teaspoon sugar to 1 tablespoon vinegar) it makes a sweet-and-pungent sauce that combines well with such vegetables as carrots and cabbage.
COOKING VEGETABLES IN ADVANCE:
Hard and semi-hard vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower and string beans may be cooked in advance and reheated they are stir-fried briefly in oil, then cooked, covered, in 14 cup of liquid over medium heat until nearly done. They are then stirred a few times and cooked, covered, another minute or two until all the liquid is absorbed. The vegetable is then left to cool, uncovered, to retain its natural color and texture. When ready to use, it is stir-fried again in a small amount of oil, just long enough to be reheated.
The Chinese rarely eat raw vegetables, and so have no tradition of eating salads. Originally the reasons were hygienic: it wasn't safe to eat vegetables raw. If they weren't actually cooked, vegetables were always quickly scalded or blanched first. This scalding not only destroyed harmful bacteria, but enhanced the vegetable's taste and brightened its color without in any way damaging its fresh texture. After blanching, however, the vegetables were treated like salads: that is, tossed lightly in dressings made with various combinations of soy sauce, salt and oil, and then chilled for about 20 minutes-long enough for the dressings to flavor the vegetables, but not long enough to discolor or wilt them.
Because frozen vegetables are less crisp and flavorful than fresh ones, they are not generally recommended. If necessary, however, frozen peas and string beans can be used. These should always be thawed first, then drained on paper toweling to remove as much moisture as possible. Since their water content is higher than that of fresh vegetables, the frozen varieties need only brief stir-frying in hot oil. (Additional liquid should never be added, nor should the vegetables be parboiled first.) Minced garlic or ginger root, added to the hot oil, will improve the vegetable's flavor.
TO STORE VEGETABLES:
Do not buy fresh vegetables too far in advance. Do not leave them at room temperature for any length of time, but refrigerate them as quickly as possible in a vegetable crisper or perforated plastic bag. Do not wash the vegetables until actually ready to cook. (Vegetables, particularly the leafy varieties, will wilt and rot. Others will lose many of their water-soluble vitamins if exposed to moisture for any length of time.) If, for any reason, the vegetables must be washed in advance, then drain and dry completely before refrigerating.
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