Dinner at the Georg

Gongbao Cauliflower

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I basically hypnotized myself into clanging up a good ol' gongbao; most of last month was spent manically writing a gastronomic guide for the Sichuan Tourism Board. Three weeks of being hunched over the computer, thinking "I got this!", then spending hours on the crappy Chinese search engine poring over a single street snack's history, its pumped-up "legend has it" tale, comparing three to five recipe variations for it to arrive at some sort of average/standard, then translating it all into English, then making sure that the English sounds native and keeps it casual (Chinese prose tends to sound unfortunately dramatic when directly translated to English.... see Chinese restaurant names and some of the huffy-puffy lines in the China Daily newspaper).

So, there's me sweating chili sweats, glasses sliding down my nose, over whether I can really push on with this, whether my Chinese is good enough, whether I'll make the deadline. The chili sweats start off as a phantom/placebo effect from reading so much about and looking at so many photos of spicy, red-oily food, and despite not having an appetite because of the stress and a recently broken heart, that's all I want to eat. So I whip out Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice and bust out the chili bean paste to make the classic gongbao chicken (also known and Kung Pao, but that was then, and this is now -- the standard Mandarin spelling). It's been raining for days -- unusual for Beijing -- and rainy climates, the Sichuanese say, make chili-eating necessary to dispel to wet coldness outside with buzzing heat within.

I don't normally keep meat in the fridge but also wanted to make a veggie gongbao, so naturally I used the chicken of the veg world -- mild and sweet cauliflower. Just burn the bejeezus out of it for roasted, wok-seared morsels that pick up the sweet-spicy glaze and go with the toasted peanuts so well. Just eat it right away because after cooking, the cauliflower will continue to sweat water and dilute the sauce. Not really a problem because this dish will, in normal circumstances, be devoured by the shovelfuls in minutes -- ahh, just thinking right now about taking a Chinese soup spoon to all those prettily peanut-sized bites of cauli, peanuts and leek. But a gloopy sticky problem if, like me, you were to tip it into a clackety takeout container, pop it in your bike basket and zip over to a friends house requiring two fast U-turns because the major intersections got you confused (but in the end, still delicious).

It's great with a small bowl of brown rice but I skip the starch and just shovel this, in the most elegant way possible of course.

 

Gongbao Cauliflower

  • 1 small head/300g cauliflower (be sure to use the Western type of cauliflower with fat, dense florets, not the type with slender green stems)
  • 50g/2 leeks (the type that is about the width of an adult's finger)
  • 20g/a handful of dried Sichuan chili
  • 1/2 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, whole
  • 35g/a handful of roasted peanuts
  • 1 tsp lotus root powder
  • 1 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 3 tsp light soy sauce
  • 3 tsp Zhenjiang black vinegar
  • 2 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 2 tsp grated dark palm sugar (I use this to replace refined white sugar)
  • 1 tsp black sesame oil or normal toasted sesame oil
  1. Cut the cauliflower into florets using a small paring knife and peel the chunky stems. Cut each floret down to 1.5cm x 1.5cm pieces. Do the same for the stems. Set aside.
  2. Cut the chilies in half and scrape out the seeds inside. Small chilies can remain whole and uncut.
  3. Slice the leek into stubby sections that match the size of the cauliflower.
  4. Mix the sauce ingredients: in a small bowl add the lotus root powder, then stir in the dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, Chinkiang vinegar, Shaoxing cooking wine, palm sugar and the sesame oil. Set aside.
  5. Heat up 2 tsp of rice bran oil in your wok or non-stick frying pan on high heat, then add the cauliflower and toss the coat with oil. Let it fry for about 5 minutes, tossing once in a while; you want the cauliflower to get smoky and scorched with a dark caramel color. Set aside in a bowl.
  6. Heat up another 1 tsp of rice bran oil and add the leeks; toss and fry for 1 minute.
  7. Add to the pan the peppercorns and chilies and stir fry for 1 minute.
  8. Add the sauce and the cauliflower, stir-frying for another minute or 2.
  9. Tip out onto your serving dish. Serve with brown rice or eat as-is delighting in its tantalizing tongue-tingling touch.

Quinoa Champorado

When people make jokes about the evils of chocolate, I get all startled and rush to its defense like someone just kicked a puppy. Like when people typecast pit bull dogs as vicious but they are actually very sweet dogs who tend to have bad owners -- so too is chocolate full of inherent goodness, but it's all about how you use it and not abuse it.

So, as you probably have heard by now, the cocoa bean has all kinds of good antioxidants and cardiovascular health-boosting compounds; it's just that unfortunately in most cases, the cacao solids are bitter, so it's often heavily cloaked with cocoa butter, white sugar and dairy, which eaten in quantity *will* cause weight gain and probably discount the nutritional value of the original bean. But if you just left out the added fat and white sugar... and mixed it with more wholesome ingredients that carry the chocolate flavor well... then you get what I call cheat's chocolate. Dark chocolate lovers especially, like me, rejoice -- there's 100% guilt-free cocoa indulgence, so guilt free you can enjoy it for breakfast.

I can't take credit for pushing chocolate for breakfast. Despite how novel it may still sound, it's actually been in practice through Western history; after all, the cocoa bean was originally a sacred medicinal elixir in the ancient Mayan culture. The Spanish conquerors then adjusted it to their taste adding milk and sugar, took it back to Europe and distributed it across their colonies, one of them being the Philippines, which brings me to champorado -- a triumphant classic Filipino breakfast that could also be called chocolate rice pudding. Not quite like Chinese congee, since the rice grains remain separate and intact rather than mushy. The cocoa powder blends right into the creamy rice liquid but often it's got added milk and white sugar.

My version uses quinoa instead of white rice as it's a seed, rather than a refined grain, so it's lighter and packs more protein; conveniently it's also faster to cook. And the rich chocolatey "milk"? Here's the secret: one ripe banana, creamy dairy-free almond milk with a heaped Tablespoonful of cocoa powder and a tiny spoon of raw honey. That's it! Oh, wait, then there's the handful of spinach leaves added in for a vitamin boost. You'd hardly be able to tell it didn't have dairy and white sugar; and you wouldn't miss those two, either.

If you make it the night before and keep it in the fridge, you'll get a thick, pudding-like texture the next day as the quinoa's starches will have gelled with the chocolate "milk". I like to eat this cold but of course, it can be warmed up in the microwave or stovetop for a comforting winter morning breakfast or even dessert.

If you don't try this recipe... you probably also wouldn't try this chocolate beetroot cake recipe either. And that's kind of fine with me because #moreforme

Quinoa Chocolate Champorado

  • ½ cup quinoa
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 banana
  • ½ cup almond milk
  • 1 ½ Tbsp cocoa powder, unsweetened
  • 12 baby spinach leaves
  • ½ tsp raw honey (optional)
  • pinch of salt
  1. Put the quinoa and water in a small saucepan. Cover and bring to the boil. When it’s boiling, lower heat to the lowest flame and simmer for approximately 15 minutes or until the water has almost completely evaporated, like steaming rice; be careful that the bottom doesn’t burn. Turn off the heat and keep the cover on.
  2. While you wait for the quinoa to cool off, put the almond milk and banana in a blender and blend until combined. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend until smooth.
  3. Combine all of the quinoa with all of the chocolate “milk” and stir until fully combined and all the quinoa is distributed evenly in the milk mixture without clumping.
  4. Enjoy it with toasted nuts and fresh fruit, like pistachios and raspberries.