I have two favorite workaday Chinese cookbooks: Irene Kuo’s “The Key to Chinese Cooking” (Knopf, 1977) and Barbara Tropp’s “China Moon Cookbook” (Workman, 1992). I say “workaday” in the best sense of the word, because these are the first books I turn to when I need guidance — which, when it comes to Chinese food, is often. Kuo is so clear and so solid on the basics; Tropp is, too, but with fireworks and innovation. If you follow their recipes you invariably wind up with delicious food.
But of course, one doesn’t always follow recipes, even for a cuisine that isn’t at one’s fingertips. So when I brought back three-quarters of a pound of long, thin Japanese eggplants from the farmers market, I looked at “China Moon” for something snappy to do with them.
Tropp’s favorite eggplant dish was called Dry-Fried Chinese Eggplant Nuggets, and it sounded like an excellent starting point: stir-fry aromatics (lots of ginger and garlic and scallions, a little Chinese chili sauce out of a jar and optional soaked and minced dried shrimp); add the eggplant cut into chunks and stir-fry for a while; pour over a sauce base consisting of soy sauce, brown sugar, balsamic vinegar (not the fancy kind; even lousy balsamic is an improvement on the poor-quality Chinese black vinegar we tend to find) and water; cook over low heat until done; garnish with sliced scallions.
My wife, Jackie, and I have had that dish a few times over the years, and it always pleases. Note that it stimulates all the tastebuds: salt, sweet, sour, bitter (the eggplant itself) and umami. But given the small amount of eggplant I had and my disinclination to cook more than one dish, I needed to stretch it out — without, however, betraying its spirit or altering its basic flavor.
A long look at what I had bought at the market provided the answer: I would use leeks to expand the aromatics into a more substantial component of the dish, and I would use wonderful, juicy tomatoes to provide an additional sweet-tart element for the sauce base. I was going to ignore the optional dried shrimp altogether, but because they are there to jack up the umami quotient I decided to do the same job with a handful of minced, lightly smoked Italian speck, one of my preferred sources of savoriness. (Dry-cured ham and tomatoes are both employed in Chinese cooking, by the way — not that there’s any need to justify their use.)
Having made a batch of plain rice and put it on the dining room table to await dinner, I diced the white and light-green parts of three medium-large leeks, then thoroughly washed them twice. I combined the chopped leeks with nearly 2 tablespoons of minced ginger and a like amount of minced garlic, a handful of the speck (any umami-rich ingredient would work: reconstituted dried mushrooms would be great) along with a heaping teaspoon of Chinese chili sauce. I could have replaced this with a minced fresh chili pepper such as a jalapeno if it had been a nice hot one. I mixed the sauce ingredients: 2 1/2 tablespoons of good soy sauce; 2 tablespoons of brown sugar; 1 1/2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar (which is a further improvement on supermarket balsamic); 1/4 cup of hot water; and four small tomatoes, peeled and diced — these were my new favorite variety: Black Prince. Finally, I roll-cut the eggplant into approximately one-inch chunks.
The cooking itself was a cinch: over fairly high heat, stir-fry the leeks and other aromatics for about a minute; add the eggplant chunks and stir-fry until there’s a little browning; add the sauce-tomato mixture, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook until the eggplant is tender, uncovering the pan and reducing the liquid a bit if you think that is needed. After tasting, I finished the dish with a half teaspoon of sesame oil and a drop more vinegar. I might have garnished with coriander (cilantro) leaves or thinly sliced scallions if I’d had any.
As I said, the original Barbara Tropp version has everything; it is perfect. This expanded version did not betray the base recipe but provided a grand one-dish, sweet-sour-spicy meal. There were even leftovers: not a lot, but enough to become the sauce for a batch of thick, chewy egg noodles the next day.
Schneider’s Cooking Off the Column blogposts appear Fridays in All We Can Eat. Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/TimetoCook.