Chinese Cold Cucumber Side Dish

I made this cucumber side dish to go with the duck soup, then wound up eating it with some frozen potstickers I had in the fridge – which was not ideal, because the potsticker dipping sauce is a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar, and those are also the base for the cucumber dressing. I should have stuck to Plan A. This spicy and tangy cucumber dish really is ideal with rich or fatty dishes, like duck, or Tungpo Pork:

1 large cucumber

1 1/2 T vinegar

1 1/2 T sugar

2 tsp. Chinese soy sauce

1 1/2 tsp sesame oil

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp Tabasco sauce

Peel the cucumber and cut in half lengthwise. Use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds, so that you have two boat-like halves. Slice the cucumber halves in 1/8″ slices. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a small bowl, stirring to dissolve all the sugar. Just before serving, pour the dressing over the cucumber slices and mix well to coat each piece. Serve the cucumber in individual small bowls for each diner, with just a bit of the dressing spooned over.

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Left-Over-Duck Soup

We went out to dinner the other night, and we both had roast duck. This is quite a treat for us – the restaurant was O’Neil’s, in Winnetka, and the ducks were very good. Whenever we order duck I always take the carcasses home, because an excellent soup can be made from the bones and the shreds of meat still clinging to them. In this case, the ducks were very meaty, making the next day’s soup even better than usual. As M. F. K. Fisher says in her book “With Bold Knife and Fork,” “There is excitement and real satisfaction in making an artful good soup from things usually tossed away…”

left-over bones from one whole roast duck or two halves

5 to 6 cups chicken stock

1 T Japanese soy sauce


2 scallions, slivered

bok choy or lettuce (optional)

Chop up the duck carcasses and put them into a pot with the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes. Strain into another pot, then pick over the bones and stuff in the strainer and remove the bits of meat. Discard the bones and any bits of fat or cartilage. Add the meat to the stock, along with the soy sauce.  Add salt to taste. Add the slivered scallions and heat through. Serve as is, or add some greens:

Cut the bok choy or lettuce into 1″ wide strips. If using bok choy, boil it separately until tender, then drain. Add the bok choy or lettuce to the duck soup and simmer gently until the greens are heated through (a little longer if you’re using bok choy and like it a little bit more tender). Serve while hot.

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Holiday Shortbread

This is the real deal – a Scottish shortbread recipe handed down in my mother’s family (her parents were from Scotland), and trotted out by me every year at around this time. It is quite “short,” meaning that it has a high proportion of shortening (butter, in this case) to flour. Despite that, it will seem difficult to include all the flour as you’re mixing – but don’t give up! It will finally combine, although the end result will be a very crumbly mixture, much looser than you may be used to. In fact, you have to compact the little cakes as if you’re making sand pies. The finished product is a crumbly, rich cake that fairly screams out to be eaten while sipping a nice hot cup of tea.

I once brought some of this shortbread in to the office where I worked at the time, and one of the women there asked for the recipe, which I happily provided. The following Monday she complained to me that she tried to make it, and it was a disaster. When I questioned her, it turned out that she had used margerine instead of butter, and that combining all the flour was too hard, so she didn’t bother! She also used dark brown instead of light brown sugar. So let that be a lesson.

3 1/3 cups white, all-purpose flour

2 sticks (16 T) unsalted butter

2/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed in the measuring cup (this is important)

A large sheet of brown paper, for baking

A baking sheet or 14″ pizza sheet

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Let the butter soften to room temperature, then cream it together with the brown sugar. Add the flour a handful at a time, mixing each in thoroughly. Use all the flour. Lay out the brown paper on your baking sheet, and cut it to fit. Take a good handful of the shortbread mixture and form into a flat, densely packed cake, about 5/8″ to 3/4″ thick. and about 4″ in diameter. Make the sides as vertical as you can, and press around the edges with the tines of the fork, to firm up the sides. Also, use the fork to prick the top in a traditional cross pattern. Repeat with the rest of the mix – you should have 6 or 7 cakes. Bake on the brown paper-covered sheet until brown – about 30 – 40 minutes (you may have to do two batches). Cool on a wire rack. Store the shortbread cakes by wrapping them in aluminum foil – do not refrigerate – they’ll keep for weeks un-refrigerated,  wrapped in the foil (assuming they’re not all eaten within days).

Shortbread dough (above). It’s crumbly, but can be packed.
 Form the shortbreads right on the baking paper (above). Don’t worry about crumbs (below).
Finished shortbreads – ready to eat or wrap as gifts

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Salmagundi – My Favorite Festive Salad

The apple-walnut salad was so delicious that it inspired me to make my all-time favorite salad: Salmagundi. Some say the name is a corruption of “Solomon Gundy,” but that still doesn’t tell you anything. It’s an old-fashioned salad – dating back  to Colonial times.


Fresh spinach leaves

Bib Lettuce (or use, as I did, some “Spring Greens” mix)

Leaf Lettuce

4 slender celery stalks

4 scallions, green ends cut off

2 roasted red peppers (the kind in a jar), cut lengthwise in 4ths

4 sweet gherkins, sliced lengthwise

2 oz  tin of flat anchovies

1/2 lb imported prosciutto, or substitute Virginia ham

2 slices Swiss Cheese

1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and quartered

Vinaigrette salad dressing (see below)

Slice the prosciuttto (or ham) and cheese in strips. Wash and drain the greens and pat them dry with paper towels. Remove tough stems and strings from the spinach leaves. Using a large platter, put a small heap of Bibb lettuce, or spring greens, in the middle, then lay out the spinach and lettuces on top of that, in radiating spokes, so that the stem ends are at the center, and the leafy ends are at the perimeter of the platter. Arrange alternating spokes of the celery and scallion. Between each of those, a strip of red pepper, and to each side of the red pepper strips, some prosciutto (or ham) and cheese. Place anchovies and gherkins at regular intervals all around, and place the quartered egg in the center. It can be kept briefly in the refrigerator, covered in plastic wrap. Pour on the vinegrette before serving. Each diner gets a segment containing all the ingredients (keep that in mind as you arrange the thing).

Salmagundi ingredients, except for the lettuce, spinach, anchovies and egg:
The finished Salmagundi, sans dressing (this one serves four people):

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Chengtu Chicken

It’s a good idea to always have on hand a can of bamboo shoots or water chestnuts, and a few tomatoes – then any time you find yourself with a few chicken breasts you can make this simple, but tasty, dish from Robert Delfs’ cookbook “The Good Food of Szechwan.” I do not like canned bamboo shoots (fresh ones are another matter, but I would have to drive to Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights to get them), so I use water chestnuts. Delfs explains that the original dish was made with chicken only, so substituting water chestnuts for the bamboo shoots doesn’t seem inauthentic.

1 whole chicken breast, skinned and boned, or 2 pieces skinless, boneless breast

1 T cornstarch

1 1/2 T Chinese rice wine or dry sherry

1 1/2 T Chinese soy sauce

2 scallions, cut in 1″ lengths

1 cup thinly sliced water chestnuts

1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped

1 T minced fresh ginger

1 T minced fresh garlic

1 T hot bean sauce (or regular bean sauce with 1/2 tsp sambal oelek


   2 T cornstarch

   1 1/2 T Chinese soy sauce

   1 tsp vinegar

   1 tsp sugar

   1/2 – 1 tsp salt

   2 tsps sesame oil

   1/2 tsp ground Szechuan pepper

   1 T ketchup (optional)

3/4 cip vegetable oil 

Slice the chicken breasts into 1 1/2″ x 1 1/2″ strips. Mix the 1 T cornstarch, rice wine and the 1 1/2 T soy sauce together and mix in with the chicken. Let the chicken marinate for at least 15 minutes.

Have the scallions, water chestnuts and tomato in small bowls near the stove. Combine the seasonings in another bowl.

Heat all but 3 T of the oil in a wok until almost smoking, then add the chicken and stir fry quickly until white (or in this case, due to the marinade, beige). Remove the chicken to a bowl, and pour out the oil.

Heat 3 T of the oil in the wok and add the hot bean sauce, ginger, garlic, scallion and water chestnuts and stir fry a few minutes until the garlic and ginger have become red from the bean sauce, and the mixture is fragrantly spicy smelling.  Add the chicken back and mix it in well. Stir the seasonings to mix them, then add to the wok with the tomato.  Stir just long enough to heat the tomato pieces through, and serve while hot with white rice. Voila:

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Grilled Salmon, with Apple-Walnut Salad

We have something to celebrate tonight – which usually means a big restaurant meal. But tonight it’s kind of nasty out, so we decided to eat in. I’m going to grill some salmon fillets and serve them with potatoes, fresh green beans, and a favorite salad: spring greens with walnuts and apple in a nice vinaigrette. The salmon recipe is one I adapted from an old Time/Life fish cookbook:

Grilled Salmon Fillets

2 pieces of salmon fillet

2 T unsalted butter, melted

Juice of one large or two small limes

1/4 tsp oregano

salt and pepper to taste

Lay the fillets on a plate skin side down, and mix the melted butter with the lime juice and oregano. Pour the marinade over them, then liberally salt and pepper them. Let them sit out for one hour or more, basting occasionally with the marinade. Meanwhile, prepare the grill (or pre-heat your broiler).

Put them in a greased fish griller (the long-handled wire mesh kind) and grill them with the cover on for about 8 minutes, depending on thickness and desired doneness. Turn once during that time. Remember that if they have marinated for more than an hour, they’ll require less cooking time.

Apple-Walnut Salad

The proportions here aren’t really critical: just put salad greens in a bowl (I like the “Spring Greens” mix I buy at the supermarket), and add a good handful of walnut halves or bits, and some strips of apple. I like to use the strange hand-cranked apple-peeler that my sister gave me once:

After I take the peel off, I just keep going, and wind up with a heap of paper-thin apple strips, which I tear into reasonable lengths. You can make them up to an hour ahead of time, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap to retard oxidation, and refrigerate until needed. Just before serving, assemble the salad with the walnuts and the apple strips (use about half of what you get from the apple and eat the rest as a “Cook’s treat”). Serve with a nice vinegrette. Here’s how I make mine:


1/3 cup EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil)

1/4 cup red wine vinegar (or to taste)

2 small gloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1/4 tsp oregano

salt to taste (optional)

Combine everything in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and let it marinate together for a few hours until you need it. Shake well before using.

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Post-Thanksgiving Indulge Eats (Version 1 – Nachos)

I guess I didn’t get enough turkey and stuffing last night, because I still want something indulgent to eat – or maybe it would be more accurate to say that all that turkey and stuffing triggered something in me that’s hard to turn off. Whatever. I’m making nachos tonight.

My favorite version is made using restaurant-style tortillas chips (tostaditas, or totopos) and piling them with beans, sliced jalapenos, cheese, chorizo and salsa. Now, by “restaurant-style” I mean that they should either come from a restaurant that fries their own, or from a Mexican grocery (I like the “El Milagro” brand that comes in a brown paper bag). Supermarket brands just don’t have the flavor or heft to stand up to all the ingredients you’ll be piling on.


1 can refried beans

1 T vegetable oil

1/4 tsp powdered epazote (see note, below)

24 Tostaditas

1 – 2 large jalapeno peppers, seeded and sliced

fried and crumbled chorizo

shredded chihuahua or medium cheddar cheese

1 recipe salsa fresca (see below)

4 oz. queso fresca (optional)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

On the burner, heat a heavy pan or skillet and then add the vegetable oil and heat 30 seconds. Add the epazote, then add the beans and stir to mix. Heat the beans thoroughly and keep warm until needed.

Lay the tostaditas in one layer on a cookie sheet, fitting them together to get as many on as possible. Spread each one with some of the beans and a slice or two of jalapeno, then sprinkle with chorizo and top with cheese:

Heat in the oven until the cheese has melted. Remove to a serving platter and top each one with salsa fresca and queso fresca.

Serve with lots of beer or Margaritas.

Salsa Fresca:

2 medium tomatoes, halved and with seeds squeezed out, and chopped

1 small onion, finely chopped

3 serrano chilies, seeded and finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped fresh coriander leaves

salt, to taste

Simply combine everything in a bowl and mix well. You can add more coriander if you wish. The amount of chilies is also up to you. Just before serving, spoon out the accumulated water thrown off by the tomatoes.

Note about epazote: This herb is traditionally added to beans, but it’s hard to find it fresh, so I buy the dried epazote that’s sold as a medicinal tea – it comes in plastic packs in the spices section of Mexican groceries. I strain it to separate the twigs from the powdered stuff (dried leaves can be crumbled up and added to the powder). Store the powder in an empty spice jar.

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Top Banana (Banh Chuoi – Vietnamese Banana Cashew Cake)

We love bananas – sliced onto a bowl of corn flakes, eaten as a snack, or baked into banana bread. Here’s another way to use our favorite fruit. The bread should be the most dense white bread you can find. You can also use Gonnella or any other Italian-style bread, so long as it has a large circumference (otherwise there’s too much waste as you cut the crusts off).

6 T unsalted butter

4 oz thick coconut milk

2 cups whole milk

2/3 cup sugar

30 slices home-style white bread (2 loaves, minus the end pieces)

4 bananas

2 T sugar

1/2 cup coarsely chopped dry-roasted cashews

Melt the butter in a saucepan, and use some of it to grease a 9: loaf pan, Add to the sauce pan, the coconut milk, whole milk and sugar. Heat on medium to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and let cool before using.

Peel the bananas and slice them into 1″ thick slices. Sprinkle them with the sugar, turning each slice to coat both sides and set aside until needed. Trim the crusts from the bread (discard the crusts). Have the crushed cashews ready in a bowl.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Give the cooled milk mixture a stir and dip a slice of bread into it just long enough to wet it. Lay it in the bottom of the loaf pan and continue with more slices until you have the entire bottom of the pan covered with one layer of bread (tear and piece slices to fit). Always stir the milk before dipping a slice. Add a second layer of milk-dipped bread, pressing slightly to compress the layers, overlapping the slices. Arrange 1/3 of the banana slices on the bread, then sprinkle on 1/4 of the cashews. Lay down another single layer of bread topped with bananas and cashews, then repeat. Stuff slices fo dipped bread down the sides, pressing with the end of a chopstick to make sure it is all compressed and there are no gaps. Add another layer of soaked bread across the top, compressing gently and sealing it on all sides, then sprinkle on the last of the cashews and top with a final layer of bread, piecing the slices so that the top is covered seamlessly, pressing gently to make a compact loaf. There should be a few tablespoons of milk mixture left – save it to baste the laof with as it bakes.

Bake the Banh Chuoi in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes, then baste with 1 T of milk mixture, bake another 20 minutes and baste again, then bake a final 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is a rich golden brown, and a skewer stuck in at various points comes out dry (if you hit a banana slice, it will come out sticky, which is fine, but wet means the cake has to bake longer).

Let the pan cool until it can be handled, then turn it upside down to slip the cake out. Turn it right-side up on a plate and serve while still warm.

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Shopping Thai (and Cooking, and Eating…)

Thai food can be very inexpensive, especially if you make it yourself – and for me, that’s half the fun. Here in Chicago, you can get good fish at Golden Pacific (on Broadway), or many of the groceries on Argyle Street. Then you can make your own Tod Mun:

Tod Mun Pla (Fried Curried Fish Cakes)

Make the sauce first:

1 T chopped garlic

1 T chopped shallots

1 fresh red chili, 3″ long, minced

1/4 cup rice vinegar

4 T sugar

2 tsp salt

2 T water

1 T peanut oil

1 T ground dry-roasted peanuts

Mash the garlic, shallots and chili to a fine paste in a mortar. Combine the rice vinegar, sugar salt and water in a bowl and place near the stove. Heat the oil in a small skillet and fry the contents of the mortar until golden. Immediately add the liquid ingredients from the bowl, and stir 30 seconds. Pour it back into the bowl, add the ground peanuts, and miz well.

The fish cakes:

1 1/2 lbs whitefish or pike fillets, skin on.

1 tsp salt

2 to 4 T store-bought red curry paste

1 medium egg, beaten

1/2 cup chopped “yard-long” beans (optional)

vegetable oil for deep frying

1 cucumber, peeled and sliced thinly

1/2 cup chopped fresh coriander

Turn the fish fillets skin side down and, holding one end down, scrape all the flesh off with a spoon. Discard the skin. Pound the fish in a mortar a handful at a time, along with proportionate amounts of the red curry paste and salt, until the mixture is fluffy and sticky. When you’re done with all the fish, combine it in a bowl with the beaten egg anf mix well to make a smooth paste. Add the yard-long beans, if desired.

Heat the vegetable oil to 375 degrees in a wok. Have the fish paste and a bowl of water near the stove, as well as a rack to set the finished tod mum on. Make tod mun by dipping your hands in the water, then forming about 3 T of the paste into a flat patty about 1/2″ thick. Fry until they’re a rich golden red in color. Drain on the wire rack.

Serve the tod mun with the sauce, cucumber slices and coriander on the side. Diners spoon some sauce on each tod mun, then top with the cucumber and the coriander.

Note: If you see inexpensive shrimp, you can use them (just call it Tod Mun Gung). Shell and devein the shrimp (simmer the shells in a cup or so of water for 15 minutes to make a shrimp stock to freeze and use in fish soups or gumbo), then chop the meat to a fine paste, and pound in the mortar and continue on as with the fish.

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