May 1, 2019

Dear friends,

I have never celebrated Cinco de Maya, a cheesy made-for-America holiday, but I may this year. The reason is a Mexican party-in-a-glass (or mug or pitcher) called “michelada” that I just learned to make.

On Saturday I watched Tony’s young Mexican friend, Antonio, assemble this beer cocktail in a terra-cotta “glass” that looked like a vase and probably held a quart. I wrote down the names of the spices and elixirs lined up on his kitchen counter. I watched him garnish the rim of the gargantuan drink with alternating cucumber slices and shrimp. It was spectacular.

Michelada is now my house drink. How it is it I haven’t heard of it before? I have been to Mexico twice and many American Mexican restaurants from haute to humble, but never stumbled across the drink. It is the country’s most popular cocktail, according to the Internet.

The drink is made with equal parts lager beer (Antonio used Modelo) and Clamato juice spiced with Maggi seasoning, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice and Tajin (chile-lime powder), with Chamoy sauce (a fruity hot sauce), Tajin and salt on the rim. And, of course, those cucumbers and shrimp.

I hadn’t seen Clamato — clam-flavored tomato juice — since I was a kid. You may have to visit a Mexican grocery store to find it, which you’ll have to do anyway to buy Maggi seasoning (a dark-brown liquid that looks like soy sauce and is made from vegetable protein). Pick up a big jar of Tajin chile-lime seasoning while you’re there, because after you taste it, you’ll want to sprinkle it on everything.

MICHELADA

Chamoy sauce (fruity, chile-spiced syrup, optional)
Coarse sea salt
Tajin (chile-lime powder)

1 1/2 cup Clamato juice
1/4 cup lime juice (juice of 2 limes)
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. Maggi seasoning
1/2 tsp Tajin seasoning
1 to 2 tsp. hot pepper sauce
12 oz. Mexican lager beer

6 large shrimp
6 cucumber slices

Pour some Chamoy onto a saucer. Dip the rims of two large glasses in the fruity hot sauce. (Or wet the rims with a wedge of lime) Place sea salt on one half of a clean saucer and some Tajin on the other half. Dip the rims of the glasses in the salt and spice, so that half of each rim is coated with salt and half with spice. Fill glasses with ice cubes.

In a pitcher, combine Clamato, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, Maggi seasoning, Tajin seasoning and hot pepper sauce. Stir well. Fill each glass half full with the Clamato mixture. Top with beer and stir gently. Garnish rims with shrimp and cucumber slices. Makes 2 large drinks.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Baked potato with sour cream, lox and capers; microwave ricotta-egg scramble.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Chicken burrito bowl from Chipotle; T-bone steak, baked potato, tossed salad and a roll at Brown Derby in Medina Township (a terrific special for about $16 on Mondays and Tuesdays); coleslaw, lamb and beef gyro with cucumber-yogurt sauce at On Tap in Medina Township; steak and blue cheese salad from Giant Eagle; spicy shrimp ceviche and chips with guacamole at Tony’s friend’s house; blue cheese burger and coleslaw at Fisher’s Cafe & Pub in Peninsula.

THE MAILBAG
From S.H.:
I am so glad you came to the same conclusion as I on the Crack an Egg product. I purchased one carton and told myself that the manufacturer grossly overcharged for a spoonful of tired veggies, etc., and started to make my own.

Dear S.H.:
I wonder how many of us across the country have started microwaving eggs for breakfast because of that product. As I wrote last week, the secret to decent microwave scrambled eggs in to avoid overcooking them. But the very best eggs, I’ve come to believe, are those scrambled with ricotta cheese — 1/4 cup per egg. The eggs turn out creamy every time, with little visible trace of the cheese. It just looks like a fluffy pile of scrambled eggs.

From Linda C.:
Thanks for the idea of chopping vegetables and freezing them in small packets. So many recipes call for several veggies in small amounts that I usually just pick a couple because I don’t know what to do with all the extras. This is a game changer. Thanks. What veggies freeze best? Any to avoid freezing?

Dear Linda:
Frozen will never taste as good as fresh, but they can be convenient. Cooked bulb and green onions and bell peppers freeze well. So do firm root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips. Green beans — blanched — are good freezers. Stay away from vegetables with a high water content, such as zucchini. I imagine you are most interested in the aromatics that are called for in many recipes. Onions, yes. Garlic, no because the flavor mellows in the freezer.

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April 24, 2019

Dear friends,
There are breakfast people and those who gag at the thought of eating before noon. I am among the former. I wake up every morning ravenous for breakfast.

What I would like to eat and what I do eat are polar opposites. I long for pancakes topped with over-easy eggs and real maple syrup. I dream of fried mush dabbed with butter and drizzled with maple syrup. I yearn for brown sugar-sweetened oatmeal showered with fruit and nuts.

What I do eat: Yogurt. Cottage cheese and blueberries. Scrambled eggs and a few grapes, hold the toast. Low-carb eating can be the pits.

Low-carb breakfasts can also be boring, which is why I was intrigued by an inane new product, Crack an Egg. It consists of a little cardboard bowl of various chopped vegetables (onions, green peppers) and shredded cheese. You crack an egg into the stuff, stir and microwave for about a minute, stirring midway through.

Why inane? Because you can do this so much better yourself — fresher, cheaper and without the excessive packaging.

I bought a couple of the packages, tasted and then started making my own. I made delicious versions such as scrambled egg with kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese hit with some oregano, and egg with lox, capers and a squeeze of lemon. My favorite was probably the creamy mugful of leftover Easter ham, ricotta cheese and an egg seasoned with a grind of nutmeg. In the summer when my herb garden gets going, I’ll add mix up even more varieties. Yum.

If you are pressed for time or just stupid-sleepy in the morning (as I am), you can chop a bunch of ingredients and freeze them in little portions just right for microwaving with one egg. The only caveat is that you must be careful not to overcook the egg. Too much microwaving yields Styrofoam-like eggs. At high power in my 1100-watt oven, an egg with two or three tablespoons of add-ins is set and creamy at 50 seconds; at a minute, it tastes like packing peanuts. A recipe with 1/2 cup add-ins, such as my ricotta-ham egg cup, cooks up creamy and tender in 70 seconds, stirring after the first 20 seconds.

These simple scrambles are low-carb, lightening-fast solutions to breakfast boredom.

GREEK EGG CUP
1 tbsp. sliced Kalamata olives
1 tbsp. diced tomato
2 tbsp. crumbled feta cheese
Salt, pepper
Pinch of oregano
1 egg

Combine all ingredients in a pottery mug and beat with a fork. Microwave on high power for 20 seconds. Stir. Microwave 20 seconds longer or until eggs are mostly set. Stir. Let stand 1 to 2 minutes before eating. Serves 1.

LOX AND CAPERS EGG CUP

1 tsp. drained capers
1 tbsp. (heaped) chopped cold-smoked salmon (lox)
1 egg
1 fingernail-sized piece of butter
Salt, pepper
1 tbsp. sour cream

Combine capers, lox, egg, butter, salt and pepper in a pottery mug. Beat with a fork. Microwave for 20 seconds on high power. Stir well. Microwave 20 seconds longer or until eggs are mostly set. Stir. Let stand 1 to 2 minutes. Top with sour cream. Serves 1.

HAM AND RICOTTA EGG CUP
1/4 cup diced ham (1/4-inch pieces)
1/4 cup ricotta cheese
Dash of salt
Pinch of fresh-ground nutmeg
1 egg

Combine all ingredients in a pottery mug. Beat very well with a fork. Microwave on high power for 30 seconds. Stir. Microwave for 40 seconds longer or until eggs are almost set. Stir and let stand for 2 minutes. Serves 1.

TIDBITS
This month in his often-hilarious monthly column in Mimi Magazine, my friend Mitch Allen details his annual diet in order to fit into his summer shorts. The diet consists mostly of vegetables and fish. Midway through, Mitch asks a question we all have been pondering: “…why was there no tilapia when I was a kid? It can’t be a new species. It’s not like God said, ‘Oh, wait, I forgot the tilapia…’ and went back and created it.”

Exactly right, Mitch. The answer is that tilapia has been here all along but on another continent — Africa. It reproduces like crazy, which is why someone (I couldn’t find out who) got the idea to farm it and sell it to Americans.

Tilapia is actually an umbrella name for a bunch of fish called “cichlid.” A lot of them look like goldfish or koi. I do not eat tilapia because most of our supply comes from China, where U.S. safety standards do not apply. The tilapia farmed there are raised in freshwater lakes in such concentrations that they live in their own waste. They are kept “healthy” with chemicals. They are an invasive species, so when they escape to unfarmed waterways, they decimate the native fish population.

Add to this the fact that tilapia are low in omega 3 fatty acids — the reason we’re told to eat more fish — and you have plenty of reason to ditch tilapia in favor of wild salmon and trout.

Bottom line: If you can find tilapia farm-raised in the U.S., go for it. The next-best choice is tilapia from South American fish farms. Otherwise, skip it.

At least tilapia is in no danger of being overfished like our past piscine obsessions. Remember the orange roughy craze? Swordfish mania? White sea bass (actually, Patagonian triggerfish) on every restaurant menu? Unlike those fish, tilapia is in plentiful supply. I just don’t know if you’d want to eat it.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Enchilada casserole; egg salad; roasted steelhead trout with cubed potatoes, brussels sprouts, Greek olives and cherry tomatoes with oregano and olive oil; pan-grilled top sirloin steak with wine sauce, pan-grilled asparagus with sesame oil, cherry tomato and feta salad; lentil soup; baked honey-glazed ham and cornbread.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Mu shu pork with Chinese pancakes and a shrimp and green bean stir fry from Chin’s Place in Akron (both dishes were excellent); rice cakes with shrimp and hot jasmine tea at Han Chinese Kabob in Cleveland; eggs over easy, grits, bacon and a biscuit at Cracker Barrel.

THE MAILBAG
From Geoff:
I’m pleased to see you finally got to try Bombay Grill’s tomato soup. It’s one of the best soups I’ve eaten and certainly the best tomato soup. Perhaps you and your readers could make an attempt at duplicating the recipe. I’ve had little luck getting the ingredients from the owners. I’d love to make a big batch, portion freeze it and have it whenever I’d like.

Your readers should know about a favorite Asian restaurant of mine in North Canton called Mint and Lime. I’ve been going there for a couple of years and it’s better than most local Asian places and comes close to being as good as those in Cleveland. Everything I’ve had there has been exceptional. Here’s the website: http://www.mintandlimeasianbistro.com.

Geoff:
The flavors of that soup are too complex for me to figure out. Does anyone else want to take a crack at it? I found many versions of Indian tomato soup on the Internet, but none that sounds like the soup I had at Bombay Grill.

I see that the owners of Mint and Lime are related to the owners of my favorite Asian place, Basil Asian Bistro in Canton, so I’m not surprised it’s good. Thanks for the recommendation.

April 17, 2019

Dear friends,
I finished a big writing project on Saturday and celebrated with a fun dinner. I made an intensely coconut-y quinoa and topped it with skewers of shrimp and mango chunks lacquered with sweet soy sauce and seared in a skillet. It was a party on a plate.

I got the idea from “Flavor Matrix” by James Briscione, which I borrowed from the library. The book is based on pairings of foods, determined by a computer based on their molecular similarities. Sound complicated? The book does nothing to simplify matters. And when you do drill down to a nugget of information, many of the pairings seem obvious — citrus with ginger and cilantro, cucumber with yogurt, and winter squash with butter and cheese.

Still, I gleaned enough inspiration to come up with this shrimp, coconut and quinoa dish. The author used oatmeal instead of quinoa and the idea does seem novel. Quinoa was another choice, and that’s what I had in the cupboard. If you want to try the oatmeal version, have at it.

The proportions of most of the ingredients in the recipe are mine, as are the kabobs. the tropical vibe was just what I needed on a stormy night when I was in the mood to celebrate.

COCONUT QUINOA

1 cup quinoa (the kind that takes 15 minutes to cook)
2 tbsp. butter
4 green onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. salt
1 can (13.5 oz.) coconut milk
1/2 cup shredded coconut (not sweetened)
Rinse quinoa well under cold running water. Heat butter in a 2-quart saucepan. Sauté onions and garlic until they release their aromas and the onions begin to wilt. Stir in salt. Stir in quinoa. Stir in coconut milk and coconut.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. If any liquid remains, uncover and boil until it has evaporated. Remove from heat and fluff with a fork. Mound on two dinner plates and top with kabobs.

Note: Frozen, shredded unsweetened coconut can be found in Asian and health-food stores).

SHRIMP AND MANGO KABOBS
4 to 6 wood skewers, cut to fit into a large skillet or cast-iron grill pan
12 to 18 large raw shrimp, depending on appetite
1 firm, slightly underripe mango
3 scallions, green part only
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 cup sweet soy sauce

Note: This makes two to three kabobs per person, depending on appetite. I was fine with two. Tony wanted three. Each kabob has three shrimp. Use your judgement.

Soak the skewers in warm water to prevent them from splintering when you skewer the food; even a few minutes helps).

Peel the shrimp and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the cheeks off the mango and score the flesh into 1-inch chunks. Cut the chunks away from the skin. Fold the green part of the scallions accordion-style into 1-inch lengths, two bends per piece.

In order, thread on a skewer: shrimp, mango, onion, shrimp, mango, shrimp. Repeat with remaining skewers.

Heat a large cast-iron grill pan or heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add oil and swirl to coat pan. In batches, place skewers in pan and sear on one side. Turn and brush seared side with soy sauce. After a minute, turn and brush other side with soy sauce. Turn once more.

Shrimp should be done at this point. If not, cook a few seconds longer. Remove from pan and place two or three skewers on top of each mound of coconut quinoa. Serves two.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Chicken stir-fry with shredded brussels sprouts over rice; spice-rubbed, wood-smoked spare ribs; tomato meat sauce baked in a spaghetti squash half with Parmesan; coconut quinoa with shrimp and mango kabobs.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Spicy fried chicken and green beans with potatoes from Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken in Akron; half of a Subway roast beef sandwich; barbecued pork chops, green beans, salad and hot tea at Alexandri’s in Wadsworth; a cup of vegetable soup and half of a spicy Asian salad with chicken at Panera; a salmon salad from Acme; scrambled eggs with ham and feta cheese, hash browns, wheat toast and coffee at Michael’s A.M. in Akron.

THE MAILBAG
From A.K.:
I have a question about olive oil. I do understand that olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil have different cooking profiles —extra-virgin (evoo) has a much lower smoking temperature because of higher particulate content, etc. The thing is, 97 percent of recipes call for simply “olive oil,” which to me tastes like vegetable oil with more health benefits. Often I will see a recipe that seems to cry out for evoo, the taste of which I love. I say use evoo when the recipe calls for low-heat cooking and simply olive oil for heavier sautéing.

So, my question: Do most recipes calling for olive oil actually mean evoo? Or should it be open to the intended use? Or do we simply use regular olive oil unless a recipe calls for evoo? Those recipes are few and far between.

Dear A.K.:
Two issues are germane here. First, many so-called extra-virgin olive oils have been found to not be the first pressing. The olive oil scam erupted in 2015, when testing showed that many Italian olive oils (some say up to two-thirds) were not extra-virgin as the labels claimed. More than 30 producers were arrested after the fraud came to light. To make sure your oil is extra-virgin, consult the list compiled by the North American Olive Oil Association at aboutoliveoil.com. Click on “Certified Quality Seal” in the menu across the top.

The second issue is that, in my opinion, many recipe writers use “olive oil” when they often mean “extra-virgin” because that’s the only kind of olive oil most Americans buy. I think you should trust your tastebuds. If you think a recipe would taste better with extra-virgin, use it. The exception, of course, is when the oil is to be heated at a high temperature. That would kill the flavor and produce smoke, so you’re better off using vegetable oil or regular olive oil.

I used to buy a very fruity, unfiltered (and expensive) extra-virgin olive oil that I used unheated in things like dressings or to drizzle on a dish as a finishing touch. I got it at West Point Market, and haven’t seen it anywhere else. I think Russ Vernon imported it directly from the producer. For sautéing, I used (and still use) a less-expense jug-type extra-virgin. For frying, I use canola. So basically, I think your instincts are correct.

April 10, 2019

Dear friends,
I am not shopping and I’m barely cooking. My life is on hold while I try to meet a writing deadline that’s bearing down on me. I retired to get away from these horrid deadlines. So why am I doing this? To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, I don’t enjoy writing, but I like having written.

I am among a group of former Beacon Journal reporters and editors who are writing a history of the Beacon Journal. Former columnist and editor Stuart Warner (now editor in chief of the Phoenix New Times) is editing the book, which will be published by the University of Akron Press. Coming soon (but not too soon) to a book store near you.

My chapter is about the newspaper’s food coverage from the 1800s until now. The historical research was interesting, and it has been fun talking to former editors, food writers and restaurant critics. But now I have a mountain of information to organize and whittle down to size.

All of this is one big excuse for not creating an original recipe this week. Probably not next week, either. I did cook something new and yummy two weeks ago, though, with this deadline in mind. The dish is a crisp roast chicken that is cut up and doused with a simple but luscious garlic-ginger sauce before serving.

The sauce is from Momofuku chef David Chang. He uses it on chicken wings and octopus and calls it “octo vinaigrette.” I suggest making a big jar of it and using it as a dipping sauce for Asian snacks such as egg rolls, skewers and lettuce wraps. It will keep for weeks in the refrigerator.

ROAST CHICKEN WITH GARLIC-GINGER SAUCE

1 whole broiler-fryer chicken, about 3 lbs.
Oil
Salt, pepper
2 tbsp. chopped garlic
2 tbsp. chopped fresh ginger
1/4 tsp. hot pepper flakes (Chang uses 1 fresh bird’s eye or serrano chile, chopped)
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup light soy sauce
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 tsp. sesame oil
1 1/2 tbsp. sugar
Fresh-ground black pepper

Trim excess fat from chicken and wash it inside and out. Pat dry. Rub the skin with oil and season it with salt and pepper. Place on a rack over a roasting pan and roast at 400 degrees for about 60 to 75 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh not touching the bone reads 170 degrees. Remove from oven and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes before carving.

While the chicken roasts, combine remaining ingredients in a jar and shake well. The sauce may be made even earlier — the day before is ideal — as its flavor improves as it sits.

After the chicken has rested, cut it into serving pieces, arrange on a platter and splash with about half of the sauce. Pass remaining sauce at the table. Serves 3 to 4.

Note: I served the chicken on a bed on stir-fried kale. The sauce dribbled down and flavored the greens. They were delicious.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Pumpkin pie; mushroom and potato soup with sherry and wilted spinach; cornbread; sugar-free yellow cake with chocolate-peanut butter icing for Tony’s birthday.

What I ate in/from restaurants last week:
Thai chicken skewers, spring vegetable salad from Earth Fare; Indian tomato soup, vegetable pakora, chicken curry, rice, naan at Bombay Grill in Fairlawn; hot tea, tom yum soup with seafood and pan-fried pork dumplings with garlicky dipping sauce (yeow!) at House of Hunan in Fairlawn; fennel-crusted skirt steak over fingerling potatoes, wilted spinach, banana peppers, onions and tomatoes with a glass of red wine at Wise Guys in Akron; a hot dog with Stadium Mustard and onions, peanuts and a beer at Canal Park in Akron at a Rubber Ducks game; two egg rolls from China Star in Akron.

THE MAILBAG
From R. C.:
Loved your column on Akron-area Chinese restaurants. I have struggled to find tasty Chinese food in our area, also. We were great fans of China Gourmet on West Market Street in Akron before it became a Starbucks.

Two questions: Do you have favorite dishes at Chin’s? Can you tell us about your favorite Chinese restaurants in Cleveland? Thanks.

Dear R.C.:
OK, those are tough questions because I have a hard time remembering from trip to trip. I know that Elaine Chin’s father, chef-owner until he retired and passed the business to Elaine, was a Cantonese-style dim sum chef in China. So I usually stick with the Cantonese dishes, although I have had good Mongolian beef there. I often order the moo shu pork.

In Cleveland, I usually go to Vietnamese restaurants with Tony because he loves pho. I like the dim sum at Li Wah. I wasn’t impressed with ballyhooed Noodlecat (not Chinese but Asian). A restaurant on my radar that I haven’t tried yet is Han Chinese Kabob in Payne Commons. Next trip.

You didn’t ask, but I have to put in a plug for Basil Asian Bistro in Canton, which has modern pan-Asian dishes that are delicious. I’d go once a week if it were closer.

From Christine R.:
I have heard people rave about Ming Hing in Orrville.

Christine:
Thanks. Any visitors have an opinion?

From Nancy H.:
I just read your latest newsletter and wanted to share a black bean sauce tip from the late, great Barbara Tropp. In her “China Moon” cookbook she suggests soaking the black beans in some xiao xing wine (or dry sherry) for about 20 minutes before adding to the dish. Strain the liquid and save it to add to your sauce ingredients. It really amps up the good flavors and textures of the dish.

Dear Nancy:
I would trust anything Barbara Tropp says. I actually got to dine at her China Moon restaurant in San Francisco years ago, and I had her cookbook. She was sweet and talented, and I lamented her death in 2001. I remember being blown away by a terrific dessert she made, ginger ice cream with hot fudge sauce. I made it several times. It is time-consuming but so worth it.

April 3, 2019

Dear friends,
I am so hungry for Chinese food. And I am so sick of anemic-tasting stir frys a 10-year-old could make with a couple of cans of La Choy and a wok. I need to find a good Chinese restaurant. Chin’s in Highland Square and House of Hunan in Fairlawn are the only places I have found that satisfy, depending on where you land on their menus.

Tip: If you see “Bourbon Chicken” on a Chinese menu, it could be a clue the stir frys come frozen from a warehouse in Timbuktu. Bourbon chicken is a staple of Chinese buffet restaurants that buy their stir frys wholesale. Bourbon is American, folks, not Chinese.

In an effort to winkle out the decent homemade dishes on a multi-page Chinese restaurant menu, I ask the waitress which dish is the cook’s specialty. I don’t know why I do this because the answer invariably is “everything is good” or a finger pointed to a list headlined “Chef’s Specialties” that cover every region of China and are the most expensive items on the menu.

Is there a real chef in the kitchen at any of these restaurants? Maybe he or she makes something good for their families and friends, while saving the trite moo goo gai pans for their American customers.

In my reporter years, I once tried to find out if this was true. I interviewed Chinese restaurant chefs all over the area to determine their provinces of origin and get recipes for dishes they make at home. Only a couple (at Chin’s and House of Hunan, in fact) were chefs before they emigrated. The rest decided to open a restaurant and wing it after they got here.

This reminds me of the guy who phoned me at the newspaper once for advice. He was thinking of opening a Mexican restaurant and wondered whether I thought it was a good idea. “Do you know a lot about Mexican food?” I asked. “No,” he said. “I just thought it might be popular.”

Anyway, if I want to eat Chinese I must travel from Copley to Highland Square or dress up (i.e, change out of pajamas or a track suit) and go to House of Hunan or drive to Cleveland. A fourth alternative is to make some Chinese food myself, which I did last week after I tossed out a pitiful version of chicken in black bean sauce from a Norton Chinese restaurant.

“How hard can it be to make this?” I wondered. Not hard, it turns out. The most difficult part is finding the fermented black beans. Unless you have an unruly pantry like mine, it will require a trip to an Asian store.

In Irene Kuo’s excellent book, “The Key to Chinese Cooking,” the recipe for the sauce is ridiculously simple: soy sauce, sherry, sugar and water. The black beans are stir fried with the chicken, ginger, garlic and vegetables. The sauce is thickened with a cornstarch slurry and finished with a swirl of sesame oil. The result is a tawny, glazed stir fry with tons of flavor.

Kuo starts with a whole chicken that she hacks, bones and all, into 1-inch pieces. I used bone-in thighs instead but next time will opt for boneless because we didn’t like eating around all the slivers of bone. Your choice.

CHICKEN IN BLACK BEAN SAUCE

1 frying chicken, about 2/12 lbs., or 8 bone-in or boneless thighs
1 large onion cut into 1-inch squares
2 medium bell peppers, cut into 1-inch squares
2 quarter-size slices peeled ginger, minced
2 tbsp. fermented black beans, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped

Seasonings:
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tbsp. dry sherry
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup water

Also:
1 1/2 tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in 3 tbsp. water (I ultimately used double the amount)
4 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sesame oil

Cut the chicken or bone-in thighs through the bones into 1-inch pieces. Or cut the boneless thighs into similar-size pieces. Place in a bowl and line up near the stove with the onions, peppers, ginger, black beans and garlic, all in separate piles. Mix the seasonings. Dissolve the cornstarch in a small bowl; have the sesame oil nearby. All this may be done hours ahead of time. Cover and refrigerate the chicken and vegetables, then bring to room temperature before stir frying.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil, swirl and heat for 30 seconds. Scatter in the onions and peppers and stir fry vigorously with the salt until they are just beginning to lose their raw edge. Remove to a dish.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the pan, heat a few seconds, and sear the ginger, black beans and garlic for a few seconds, stirring all the time. Add the chicken and toss and stir until all the pieces are yellow-whitish. Add the seasonings mixture, stir and when it bubbles, turn heat to medium, cover and let the chicken steam-cook vigorously for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Uncover, turn the heat to high, add the onions and bell pepper and stir in sweeping, tossing motions for 1 minute. Give the cornstarch mixture a big stir and pour into the pan, stirring until the chicken and vegetables are smoothly glazed. If the sauce is too thin, quickly make and add more cornstarch slurry. Add the sesame oil, give the contents a few sweeping folds and pour into a hot serving dish. Makes 4 servings.

From “The Key to Chinese Cooking” by Irene Kuo.

Note from Jane: If you don’t cook the stir fry at a high enough heat, which can be a problem with home stoves and fear of spatters, the chicken will release so much moisture that the sauce will require at least double the thickening.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
A detox green smoothie; chicken in black bean sauce, steamed rice; hamburgers; roast chicken with ginger-garlic sauce; DiGiorno’s frozen pizza.

What I ate in /from restaurants:
Half a meatball sub from Subway; bacon-wrapped meat loaf, roasted carrots, mashed potatoes and a glass of Malbec wine at Wolf Creek Tavern in Norton; a hot Italian sub at Primo’s Deli.

THE MAILBAG
From Sandy D.:
In response to your question about foods we once disliked….I will be 60 years old in June. About three months ago I started eating cottage cheese for the first time in my life. I could never stand the texture before, I guess. Now I eat it almost daily, especially since I’ve discovered Hood’s brand.

Next up I will be attempting to make my own as I do ricotta — can’t beat homemade!

From Diana H.:
When I was pregnant with my first child we had feta cheese in a salad at a Greek festival and it was AWFUL! So I never ate it for years. One day I had a Greek salad and just knew I did not like feta cheese but took a bite anyway. Then I realized how much I LOVED it! Probably pregnancy gave me funky tastebuds for feta. It tastes so good and I enjoy it every time I have a Greek salad.

Dear Sandy and Diana:
How interesting that you both once disliked a particular cheese. I can’t think of a cheese I dislike, although there’s probably one somewhere that I’d turn up my nose at. I eat cottage cheese several times a week because it’s a good source of lean protein and I like it. Feta may be my favorite everyday cheese. It is relatively low in fat and has a mild but distinct salty flavor. I use it in tacos, all kinds of salads, omelets and even on pizza.

Very few foods are on my hate list. Among them are natto — slimy Japanese fermented soybeans — and tripe, which I’ve tried to like but whose texture puts me off.