Friday, January 6, 2017

Mr. Hawthorne Makes Comfort Food For Rosie. Chicken Livers.

It's not very often that I am physically on empty, but sometimes it happens.
A few months ago it did.
And I had a craving.
I don't ordinarily get cravings, but when I do, I know my body is telling me something.  Since my body is somewhat of a temple, I listen to it.  When it wants/desires/needs greens, I give it greens.  When it demands some sort of offal, I must procure it.

Rosie wanted chicken livers.
And she got them.
Thank you, Mr. Hawthorne.

I didn't get just any chicken livers.
I wanted Mrs. Chiang's chicken livers and that's what I got.

First, a little history about Mrs. Chiang and her cookbook.

I ordered Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook    
and started reading.

I was entranced by the story of the birth of this book. It's the story of a friendship between Chiang Jung-feng and Ellen Schrecker,along with her husband, John Schrecker.  The Schreckers ventured to Taipei, Taiwan
for Hubby Schrecker to pursue his Chinese language studiesand for the Couple Schreckers to pursue their love of Chinese food.
I was particularly drawn to this description of the Schreckers' journey:
"Our personal journey to a love of Chinese food is a story in itself, an odyssey that took us from the Cantonese restaurants of Philadelphia to a knowledge of what we came to call the zhen wer, the true taste of Chinese cooking.  My husband majored in East Asian studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he haunted the local Chinese restaurants.  He could read Chinese and courted me in Chinese restaurants, where he would order dishes I had never heard of.  He soon taught me all he knew.  By the standards of Cantonese restaurant cooking in 1961, we were experts in Chinese food.
Then we went to Taiwan, where John was to take advanced language training.  Our illusions quickly disappeared; we had not begun to experience real Chinese food.  Its tastes and textures were always vivid, clear, and bright.  American Chinese food by contrast was muddy, bland, and crude.  Instead of smothering everything with a thick concoction heavily laden with cornstarch and monosodium glutamate, the chefs of Taipei usually relied on the cooking process itself to produce delicate, unobtrusive sauces."
Just, WOW!
I love stories that start out like this.

It only gets better:
 When we came back from that first glorious year on Taiwan, our worst doubts about American  Chinese restaurants were confirmed.  They were not preparing real Chinese food.  They were cavalier about altering recipes; we were now knowledgeable enough to be shocked when they served the famous Szechuan chicken with hot peppers and peanuts made with snow peas and cashews, or a simple Pekingese dish of lamb and scallions similarly touched up with snow peas and smothered in a thick brown sauce.  In frustration, we spent hours reminiscing with friends who had been to East Asia, analyzing how the "true taste," or "zhen wer," differed from what we were getting, and why it was not being produced.

In 1969, the Shreckers returned to Taipei on academic leaveand had the good fortune to find Mrs. Chiang,
a master of Chinese cooking. She agreed to return to America with the Shreckers to look after their children as well as to cook. Could Szechwan home cooking be successfully transplanted to America?  Could the right ingredients be found?  Mrs. Chiang was used to cooking over an open fire. Could the American kitchen be adapted to her methods?
Bottom line -  yes to all.
The cookbook is a collection of Mrs. Chiang's recipes,written by Mrs. Shrecker,with Mr. Shrecker acting as translator and collaborator.  The cookbook is limited to Szechwan cooking. It is neither a translation of a Chinese cookbook nor an adaptation of Chinese cooking for American tastes.  As Mrs. Shrecker writes, "We have undertaken to provide recipes that will allow the American cook to produce the 'zhen wer,'
the true taste of Chinese food.... Our goal is to allow the American cook to learn about and recreate the true taste of Chinese food. With care, attention to detail, and practice,it can be done.  The zhen wer will not disappoint you.

I've been enjoying reading this cookbook and learning about Mrs. Chiang's culture and Szechwan cuisine.  She grew up in Szechwan in a family of demanding gourmets.  The family raised most of their food; her father butchered their own pigs; her mother made her own vinegars and soy sauce.
As the author, Mrs. Shrecker, wrote, "Everyone in China, from peasant to gentleman scholar,
was and is a gourmet."
The Szechwan province, isolated in central China, was a prosperous and fertile province with a rich agriculture.  It was a province of gourmets.  Szechwan food is basically peasant food that earned the people of Szechwan the nickname of haochigui, "good-eating devils."  And Mrs. Chiang's food epitomizes the everyday home-cooking of the Szechwan cook.  Early on, her life revolved around her mother's kitchen.

Mrs. Chiang recalls:

"She cooked all our meals on a big, wood-burning brick stove that practically filled the kitchen. My brothers and sisters and I would run in and snatch a piece of fruit or a bit of salted vegetable to eat on the way to school.
By the time I was ten, I was allowed to help my mother in the kitchen.  I loved it.  I washed pots, chopped vegetables, and kept the fire going.  Sometimes when my mother was very busy I got to cook a dish.  But mainly I watched, listened, and learned.  There was a lot to learn.  My mother made nearly everything we ate, including condiments.  I learned to make soy sauce and bean curd, hot pepper paste and wine.
Even when there was no company she cooked with great care.  My father was very demanding.  If he didn't like dinner, he would stomp out of the house and go to a restaurant.  My mother had to cook well."
According to Shrecker:
"Mrs. Chiang's mother was a superb cook and her father a demanding connoisseur.  As a girl in pre-revolutionary China, Mrs. Chiang knew her relations with a future mother-in-law would largely depend on her ability as a cook, so she applied herself to learning with a singlemindeness no American girl of today would match. ...  She loved to cook and, like most people from Szechwan, loved to eat."
"Not only did Mrs. Chiang's mother cook well, she taught her daughter the recipes that provide the bulk of this cookbook.  Even more important, she transmitted her deep understanding of food and her respect for its natural qualities.  Mrs. Chiang has an amazingly sensitive palate.  She can taste a dish at a restaurant, analyze its ingredients, describe how it was cooked, and say what should be done to improve it.  Such refinement can only come from years of eating, cooking, and talking about good food."

More history behind the book:

Somehow, Mrs. Chiang was Chiang-hied by the husband and wife team of John and Ellen Shrecker.

The Shreckers were in Taiwan studying Chinese culture and pursuing Chinese language studies and their love of Chinese food.  Mrs. Chaing grew up in Szechwan and eventually made her way to Taiwan where her cooking became famous.  When the Shreckers first tasted Mrs. Chiang's food, they were astonished at the difference between Mrs. Chiang's authentic Szechwan fare and what passed for Chinese food in American restaurants.  The Shreckers had discovered zhen wer, or "true taste," a classical principle of careful preparation, attention to detail, and practice, blithely ignored by American Chinese restaurants.  So impressed with Mrs. Chiang's cooking, the Shreckers condescendingly offered to bring Mrs. Chiang back to America, to Jersey for crying out loud, to look after their children as well as to cook for them, while Mrs. Shrecker pursued her PhD.  Mrs. Shrecker hounded poor Mrs. Chiang in the kitchen, following her about with a small notebook, while Mr. Shrecker practiced his Chinese language and translated for wifey. 
The book is a "must-read."  
Here's a tid-bit from Chapter Six:
Mrs. Chiang's arrival in America completely altered our life style. We began to give dinner parties, dozens of them, for her food was so good, we felt obliged to feed all our friends."
 All the time, Mrs. Chiang is taking care of the Shreckers' little rugrats.

One of my favorite quotes in the book is about American egg rolls (chunjuan):
"What a travesty most American egg rolls are!  They have the drab, sour taste of overcooked celery; any other ingredients are anonymous, flavorless, and mushy.  Authentic Chinese spring rolls like Mrs. Chiang's, with their crisp skins and savory filling, seem like a completely different order of food."

Please enjoy Mr. Hawthorne's  production of Mrs. Chiang's Chicken Livers or jigan chao qingjiaoding:

Mrs. Chiang's Chicken Livers
1/2 pound chicken livers
1/2 inch piece ginger
1 scallion
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1 TB cornstarch
3 TB soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 TB sherry
1 green pepper

3 cloves garlic
3 TB peanut oil
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp sugar

Clean the livers, cut each piece in half, a put in bowl.
Peel ginger and cut into matchsticks 1/8 inch thick.  Add to livers.
Cut scallion into 1 inch lengths.  Add to livers along with salt, sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sherry.  Mix thoroughly and set aside to marinate.
Cut peppers, removing seeds, into 1-inch pieces, roughly the same size as the chicken livers.
Smash garlic cloves, then peel.  Chop coarsely, into rice-sized pieces.

Heat pan over high heat, then add 1 TB peanut oil.  When oil is hot and wisps of smoke appear, add pepper and stir-fry for 30 seconds, spreading around in the pan. Add 1/2 tsp salt and fry a minute more.  Remove from pan.

Reheat pan and pour in remaining 2 TB peanut oil.  When oil is hot, add garlic and stir-fry for 30 seconds, then add in chicken liver mixture and stir-fry for 1 more minute.  Return green peppers to pan and continue stir-frying for 2-3 minutes.  Stir in 1/2 tsp sugar. Test to be sure livers are thoroughly cooked and serve.

Mr. Hawthorne obliged and served the chicken livers on a bed of mashed potatoes - yes, mashed potatoes since that was what was calling out to me -  alongside a bean salad.  This hit the spot.

The smoothness and softness and butteriness of the mashed potatoes soothed me.
The velvety texture and deep, rich flavor of the livers fortified me.
The tang of the sweet and sour bean and carrot salad lifted me.

Rosie is well on the way to recovery from her malaise.

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