AS MUCH as we love a good steak, we find hamburger more practical. And so it goes A with cookbooks. We pore through the coffee-table beauties but are more likely to actually buy the minimally illustrated bargains. This time, however, we have found two steaks at hamburger prices: two Chinese cookbooks that are coffee-table weight and beauty, but cost as little as those that are print-heavy and photo-sparse.
If Chinese cooking is part of your everyday scheme, the cookbook to add to your collection this year is "Chinese Technique" by Ken Hom, a well-known young San Francisco cooking teacher who has been so successful on the West Coast that he is planning to open a cooking school in Hong Kong next April. Hom grew up in the Chicago restaurant kitchens of his relatives, where he began working at age 11. Thus he knows enough about the restaurant business to answer "Are you kidding?" when asked whether he would like to open one of his own. Instead, he has turned to teaching, and now to writing; his book has been so well-received that by its release date it had already gone into its second printing, bringing the total to 37,500 copies. Written with Harvey Steiman, food and wine writer for the San Francisco Examiner, "Chinese Technique" (Simon & Schuster, $16.95) represents the nouvelle lite rature de cuisine, the new wave of cookbooks. This modish sort of cookbook is thick with black-and-white closeup photos, modeled after Jacques Pepin's "La Technique" and "La Me thode", showing more how-to-do than what-to-do. This is the year of the food photographer.
But these are working photos rather than beautiful photo essays. Even the color plates are serviceable rather than sumptuous. Nevertheless, you certainly get a lot of photos for your money; at $17, this book is priced as the hamburger among cookbooks.
You also, for your money, get clear and valuable instructions on buying a cleaver or boning a chicken, cutting carrots into flowers and stuffing a bitter melon. With photographs probably running over a thousand, there is certainly much you can afford to miss. And, this being a book from California, it has instructions for the likes of fresh conch that Eastern cooks will skip. But the culinary security blanket such a visual book provides can be appreciated by anybody who has tried to describe the folding of a wonton or the scoring of a braised Szechuan fish. Cooking is, after all, a process, and as such is often open to misinterpretation. Size, shape, design are all more easily seen than heard.
Hom considers his book an accompaniment to the Chinese recipe books a home cook might already own, a way of fleshing out one's understanding by illustrating how a dish looks before and after it is cooked, how to hold the duck when it is being basted, how much sauce there should be in the dish. He has meant it to be familiar and down-to-earth, and thus has not included Chinese characters or poetic flowery names. Chinese technique, he stresses, is not all that foreign, certainly not weird or exotic.
Thus Hom teaches through photographs how to slant-cut, roll-cut, shred, slice, dice and mince. He shows how to wrap an egg roll or a packet of parchment chicken. Crave those little fried stuffed chicken wings in Chinese and Thai restaurants? Their secrets are revealed here. And in case you don't have a Chinese waiter at hand to show you how to wrap your mu shu pork in a pancake (which Hom has taught you to make), the whole business is illustrated in this book. As the most difficult processes to describe in words are the textures and shapes of doughs, the Doughs and Noodles chapter is crucial; whereas in some of the meat and fowl chapters, the book is "pictury" (the modern-day equivalent of "wordy") with some photos apparently included to fill up space rather than reveal something new. It is, though, undeniably handy to know what ingredients should look like while you are cooking them rather than only when the dish is completed. And that Ken Hom's book accomplishes.
The next step in food literature may well be scratch-and-sniff cookbooks.
The prime steak among Chinese cookbooks comes from Hong Kong -- produced, surprisingly enough,, by the Hong Kong China and Gas Company. Called, obviously enough, "Hong Kong and China Gas Chinese Cookbook," it is a tome of fantasy, with three pages of index for photos alone. The double-page pictures, glorious photography in full color of ingredients -- vegetables, seafoods, fish, eggs, dry ingredients and the like -- clarify the mysteries of America's Chinese markets as well as Hong Kong's. It is as much travelogue as cookbook, thanks to its photos of Hong Kong's incomparable markets and food shops; and to while away simmering or marinating time, it has luscious shots of mainland China -- details of the Forbidden City, street scenes -- as well as a dynasty chart and map of China's regions.
This is a book everyone might enjoy, but not one that everyone would find useful.
The glossary goes beyond lotus roots to mao tou green peas and five kinds of bean curd. The menu recommendations are spiced with photographs of Hong Kong restaurants. And though the chapter on tea and descriptions of regional cooking are found in other Chinese cookbooks, they are nevertheless useful. Along with recipes both extravagant (Double-Boiled Winter Melon Soup) and simple (Sesame Beef), the book is sprinkled with helpful hints: instructions for making five-spice powder, ginger juice, ginger wine, dips and sauces.
But it is a book for the already-informed, who know to use pine nuts when a recipe calls for "olive beans." Few of us will cook deep-fried pork intestines or marinate live crabs for a week to prepare drunken crabs, and probably none of us has access to rice birds, garoupa, thinly-sliced coagulated chicken blood or bamboo fungus. There is much we can use, now that our Oriental markets stock lotus leaves and rice paper, but this is a book for inspiration more than for instruction. And a book beautiful enough to tempt one to buy a coffee table to sit it on as well as to launch a reader in search of carp tails, turtle and pomfret. But most glorious is its price; this book can be ordered by sending $19.50 to Hong Kong China Gas Ltd., GPO Box 134, Hong Kong.
DARK-MEAT CHICKEN WITH SHALLOTS (4 servings)
Unlike light meat, dark meat can be reheated without worry of overcooking. Since there are not crisp vegetables in this dish to wilt, it can be prepared ahead and warmed just before serving. We prefer to leave the skin attached to the chicken to provide crisp texture and additional flavor, but the fat rendered from the skin should be spooned away. If you prepare the dish ahead, remove the skin before reheating or it will turn soggy. The skin can be shredded and stir-fried for cracklings. 3 pounds chicken, thigh quarters (or all thighs), boned and cubed, skin attached
Marinade: 1 egg, beaten 2 tablespoons shaoxing wine or dry sherry 1 tablespoon thin soy sauce Pinch of salt 1/4 cup water chestnut powder or cornstarch
For cooking: 4 tablespoons peanut oil 4 tablespoons fermented black beans 2 tablespoons finely minced garlic 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger root 15 small whole shallots, peeled 2 tablespoons chopped Chinese chives or regular chives
Sauce: 1 tablespoon thin soy sauce 2 teaspoons sugar
Mix the egg, wine, soy and salt together and marinate the meat for 15 to 20 minutes. Dust the pieces of chicken (skin attached) with water chestnut powder or cornstarch. Shake off any excess.
Stir-fry the meat in the oil to brown it. Make a well in the center of the wok by moving the pieces of chicken up the side of the wok where it is cooler, and spoon out the fat rendered by the skin, leaving about 2 tablespoons.
Add the black beans, garlic and ginger, mix them well, then add the shallots and the remaining ingredients. When the shallots have softened a little and the chicken is done (about 1 to 2 minutes, more if shallots are large or the heat is not very high), transfer to a serving plate. Spoon sauce over chicken. From Ken Hom's, "Chinese Technique."
MINCED SQUAB WITH LETTUCE CUPS (6 servings as an appetizer or first course, 2 as a main course)
Each guest wraps some of the squab mixture in a lettuce cup. According to Chinese etiquette, the package is eaten with chopsticks, but it is easier to handle with the hands. The dish usually is served as an early course, functioning as a sort of salad, served with deep-fried transparent noodles. 2 1-pound squabs (substitute Cornish hens) 1 cup chicken broth 2 tablespoons peanut oil 2 cloves garlic, minced 10 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and minced (substitute canned) 1/2 cup minced bamboo shoots 6 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked, squeezed dry, and minced 4 scallions, minced 6 dried oysters, soaked, squeezed dry, and minced (optional) or 4 duck liver sausages, minced 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root 1 teaspoon sugar 2 tablespoons thin soy sauce 2 tablespoons shaoxing wine or dry sherry 1 tablespoon oyster sauce 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold chicken broth 2 heads bibb or iceberg lettuce, leaves carefully separated into lettuce cups
Using a thin cleaver, cut away the wings. Cut away the thigh joints. Pull off the skin, cutting it where necessary, and set it aside. Bone the breasts. Scrape all the meat you can from the bone. Neatness does not count. To remove the leg meat, make a slit the length of the leg to the bone. Pull the meat away, cutting it off the bone where necessary. Remove the small but tough tendon from each leg. Bone the second squab, then add the bones, feet and wings to 1 cup chicken broth and reduce the liquid to 1/2 cup.
With two cleavers, start chopping the boned meat. Chop until finely minced. Set aside. Thinly slice the squab skin. Stir-fry the skin in a little oil to render the fat and crisp the skin. This takes about 10 minutes. As the skin browns, move it up the side of the wok. Set the crisped skin aside. The preceding steps can be done up to 8 hours in advance. Keep the minced squab refrigerated if it must stand longer than 1 hour.
Stir-fry the squab in the oil with the garlic over high heat until it is browned lightly. Add the remaining minced ingredients, mix them well, and add the reduced chicken broth, sugar, soy sauce, rice wine or sherry and oyster sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil and stir in the cornstarch dissolved in broth.
Stir in the crisped skin and transfer the mixture to a serving plate. Serve the dish surrounded by lettuce cups. To eat, wrap some of the mixture in a lettuce leaf and eat by hand. From Ken Hom, "Chinese Technique."
FRIED MILK (6 to 8 servings) 10 ounces milk 10 to 12 egg whites 3 tablespoons lard, melted 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch 2 teaspoons salt, dash white pepper 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1 ounce olive beans (pine nuts) Oil for deep-frying 1 ounce rice vermicelli 4 tablespoons cooking oil Chinese parsley, chopped
Mix milk, egg whites, lard, cornstarch and seasoning ingredients lightly together.
Heat the wok, add oil and when very hot, deep-fry the pine nuts for 1 minute, or until golden. Remove, drain and set aside. Reheat the oil and add broken rice vermicelli. Fry until the noodles expand and float to the surface, about 20 seconds. Remove, drain well and arrange on a serving plate.
Pour off the oil. Add 2 tablespoons oil and heat the wok. Pour in the egg and milk mixture and stir-fry on moderate heat until just set, about 4 minutes, adding remaining 2 tablespoon oil during cooking. Pour over the noodles and garnish with the fried pine nuts and chopped Chinese parsley. Serve. From "Hong Kong and China Gas Chinese Cookbook."
SCALLION PANCAKES (Makes 12) 7/8 cup all-purpose flour 10 tablespoons cold water 1 tablespoon melted lard 2 tablespoons scallion, chopped 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons sesame oil Oil for shallow frying
Sieve flour into a mixing bowl, and pour in the cold water. Quickly work it into the flour, adding just a little more water if the dough is dry and hard. It should be soft and workable. Knead for 3 minutes, then cover with a damp cloth and leave for 15 minutes. Cut into 12 pieces. Roll each out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick and brush with melted lard. Scatter on chopped scallion and add salt and sesame oil. Roll up lengthwise to encase the scallion. Twist into a spiral shapes. Flatten each piece with the fingers or by using a rolling pin on a floured board.
Heat the wok or a large frying pan and add about 3/4-inch oil. Fry pancakes two at a time, for 3 to 3 1/2 minutes. Cover the pan during half the cooking, and shake the pan occasionally to make the pancakes puff up slightly. Remove, drain and keep warm while the remainder of the pancakes are cooked. Serve hot. From "Hong Kong & China Gas Cookbook."