Sichuan province (or szechuan) has a long, venerable history as a mecca for arts, leisure and culture in China. The mild (read: often overcast) weather makes for lush vegetation, easy farming and lots of time for pleasurable pursuits such as gourmet cooking. UNESCO named Chengdu a city of gastronomy in 2011 (there are only three such cities named worldwide: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/creativity/creative-industries/creative-cities-network/gastronomy/)! It's also the home of pandas.
Most people associate sichuan, or more specifically chengdu food with being blazingly spicy but there is another side of traditional sichuanese fare. My grandfather was an eastern medicine doctor and had a strict dietary regimen for himself, never eating spicy, excessively oily or salty food - I bet his coronaries were clean as a whistle! There is a tradition of subtle, gentle recipes in sichuan, often balancing the salty, sizzling flavors found in iconic dishes such as Mapo tofu. This tradition includes light, clear soups that don't use meat or vegetable stock as a base, but rather the fresh flavors of veggies with minimal spices. Even in boise I can find ingredients in the saturday asian market to make some comforting simple dishes of my childhood. This weekend I happened to find some lotus root, a delicious veggie with a sweet, almost floral fragrance when cooked and a starchy/crunchy texture like a stir-fried potato. It also does something magical when boiled with meat - it tenderizes it and gives it a very sweet and clean taste. It's another veggie-heavy recipe that my husband adores though he's a rabid carnivore. Here's a recipe for a delicious, simple and super duper healthy lotus root soup:
- fresh lotus root - 4-5 sections
- sichuan peppercorn
- pork (ideally a marbled cut such as boneless rib) cut into 2 inch sections, about 1-1.5 lbs. The proportion of meat to veggies aren't really important you can vary it as you like.
1. Get yourself some lotus root: It should smell clean, fresh and be a light beige with freckles. Don't buy any segments with mushy/dark brown/dented areas or that smell of mold or anything else bad. Another tip I picked up recently is to buy the shorter fat segments rather than long tapered ones - these tend to be less stringy.
2. Get some sichuan/flower peppercorn. This is the quintessential sichuanese ingredient. It's used heavily in sichuan cooking, also nepalese and tibetan, but not anywhere else. It has a beautiful citrusy fragrance, it makes your tongue tingle and cools you off in hot muggy weather. It can be purchased in many places including online. The best packaging is vacuum sealed and ideally opaque. I keep mine in the freezer which keeps the volatile oils (the source of the smell and spiciness) keep for as long as possible. A good sniff should tell you if the pepper is still pungent or has gone off. The peppercorn adds a teeny tiny bit of spice to this dish but mostly serves to bring all the flavors together and enhance fragrance.
3. Buy some pork, I usually use about 1-1.5 lbs. I usually buy country style rib because it has a nice amount of fat marbling the meat, not a ton and is relatively affordable. Cut the meat into even chunks, about 2 inches wide. I use the 'rolling' technique of cutting: you cut the food at an angle, not straight up and down or horizontal, turn or roll the food over onto that cut surface, and cut at an angle again. It results in more angular (aka not a cube) slices that cook more evenly and, according to chinese to aesthetics, is much more pleasant and natural to that eye than cubes. I was planning to take pictures of this but cooked the pork before I remembered! See the lotus below for results. If this sounds too confusing, 2-inch cubes are fine.
4. Peel your lotus root - a sharp knife or peeler both work fine. Cut off the hard ends and slice, as above, into 2-3 inch segments. Again, I usually use the 'rolling' technique but 1-inch slices cut in half are also fine.
5. Put your meat into a large pot, cover well with water and bring to boil. When the meat has turned all grey on the outside, about 2-3 minutes on boil, turn the heat off and rinse your meat in cold water. I usually rinse 3-4 times. The point of this step is to get that stringy/foamy crud off the meat - this saves you the traditional french cooking step of degreasing your soup after it's cooked.
6. Add your chopped lotus root and fill with enough water to just cover. Throw in about a dozen peppercorns, put the lid on. Turn to low/medium or whatever 'simmer' temperature is on your range and kick back. Check the soup in about half an hour to see if the meat is tender - it should be melt in your mouth, super soft, and the lotus should be tender but still a little bit crunchy. The lotus might have some 'string' to it when you bite into it and that's normal - you'll understand what I mean if you try this recipe. If not tender get, keep cooking for another 10-15 minutes, taste intermittently.
If you really do try this recipe, I love how this soup fills my house with the smells of lotus roots, it's a very sweet, fresh clean scent. It's very low in sodium. Also, drink the soup! I have trouble staying hydrated and light soups like this are one of the few liquids I can drink a ton of. This recipe is just as delicious without the meat for your vegetarians out there - it's the root that tenderizes and flavors the meat, not the other way around. Last thing: I wouldn't eat the peppercorns, just pick them out or avoid them when eating this dish.
Let me know how it goes :). Enjoy!