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Summer veggie feast -- Yunnan style


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It's the middle of June and we've had enough early rain to make the summer vegetables abundant: they are cheap, flavorful, and lush. A walk through the wet market introduces so many delicious possibilities that it's difficult to choose.


Today I found lots of fresh young celery with tender leafy tops. Already had eggplant and tomatoes in my shopping basket. Supper became obvious: Combine these items with a sauce and some steamed rice. A flavorful and healthy medley.


In order to keep it light, I decided to steam the eggplant instead of frying it. The whole dish came out tasty; let me show you how it worked. You might want to try it at home yourself tonight.


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Two long slim Asian eggplants 茄子, tender young ones, first cut in half lengthwise and then in fourths. Finally, cut them across into pieces that are 2 or 3 inches long. The skin is soft and does not need to be peeled. Toss them into a steamer basket on the stove. Cover and steam on lowest heat for 10 to 15 minutes. You want them to soften a little, but stay firm, not get all mushy.


Meanwhile prep the celery 芹菜. Dice a couple stalks for their crunch and fine chop the tender leaves for their slightly bitter flavor. Use them in place of parsley or cilantro. Celery tops are a refreshing and imaginative ingredient; it would be a pity to just discard them.


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Set those aside and turn your attention to the aromatics. 独蒜 Garlic, 干辣椒 dry hot peppers, torn into halves or thirds, 姜 ginger, 葱 spring onions. A marriage made in heaven. These are traditional, mutually complimentary flavors, perfect for bringing out the best in fresh Summer vegetables. 


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Notice how handy it is to peel ginger with the edge of a spoon. Much easier than using a paring knife.


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The Spring onions 大葱 are simple to peel by just tearing off the outer-most layer. When chopping them, don't use the dark green parts, since they are tough.


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By this time the eggplant was tender when tested with a fork. It should still be firm, however, not mushy or falling apart. Lift it out of the steamer and put it in a pan or bowl off to one side. Chop some ripe tomatoes 番茄 and make a sauce.


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The sauce is easy: two or three teaspoons of soy sauce 酱油 and the same amount of Shaoxing cooking wine 绍兴黄酒. Can add a teaspoon of sesame oil 芝麻油。 Put in about a teaspoon of rock sugar 冰糖。It's less sweet than granulated sugar. Combine these items in a small bowl.


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Now a half teaspoon or so of 小份 or corn starch. I prefer to not be a "fussy" cook, but I confess to having a little ritual with this particular ingredient. I dissolve it alone in a small amount of cold water before adding it to other liquid ingredients. Not absolutely sure that's necessary, but I learned it early on as a way of making sure it did not form lumps, especially if the other liquids happen to be hot.


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This 小份 or corn starch will make the sauce a bit thicker, help it coat the vegetables more smoothly and give them a pleasant sheen. It isn't absolutely essential; if you skip it, your your dish will still taste good. 


You remembered to put the rice on to cook at the very beginning, didn't you? Good! It should be done. Now you're ready to put it all together, to finish up your meal.


Saute the aromatics in a couple spoons of good-quality oil. Use high heat and stir them constantly. You will know when they are done because they become slightly golden and release their delicious smell.


Add the celery and fry it long enough to wilt the leaves and slightly soften the chopped pieces of stem, 5 to 7 minutes. Now the tomatoes and the pre-steamed eggplant. Dash of salt (easy does it, because the soy sauce contains salt.) MSG if you like it (1/4 teaspoon max.) It's taking shape, colorful and clean.




Stir the bowl of liquid sauce to re-dissolve the 小份 and swirl it into the skillet. Toss to coat and heat all ingredients thoroughly. The cooking is already done by this time, so you are just blending flavors and distributing seasonings. Still looking good!




Plate it up. Small bowl of steamed rice on the side 小碗米饭。 What you have is a fine summer vegetable supper, a combination of bright, fresh flavors, almost like a hot and hearty salad. Nourishing, healthy, and not the least bit boring.


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As a bachelor who likes to cook, that's enough for my own simple supper. However, you could easily supplement it with a meat dish if serving two or entertaining guests. One easy option would be a nice roast duck. Open a cold beer and put on some music. It's one of those "Life is Good" Yunnan moments!

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Looks yummy :)


The way you describe dissolving the corn starch in a little water before adding to the main liquids hot or cold is the way i was taught and is the only way I know to avoid lumps, I was told it is called slaking. I don't think this could be considered fussy merely the only way to do it :)


Thanks again for you wonderful cooking ideas.

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Slaking -- I didn't know what it was called. Glad to know it's standard, accepted practice and not just a silly habit I picked up somewhere along the line. Thanks for clearing that up.

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I made this today for my friends, and they ate it within seconds. (then again it might have been because I served dinner at 9 and by that time they were all starving :P) I used a different type of cilantro.. I forgot the name but the stalks are thinner since the normal one sold out. The guy said this would work so I trusted him. Also steamed the eggplant over the rice to make things easier but I think the heat is higher this way because the eggplant changed color to pukey brown color lol. Thank you for the wonderful recipe & instructions ^_^

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Glad that it worked out, @Grawrt. Having hungry friends is always a plus!


Also steamed the eggplant over the rice to make things easier but I think the heat is higher this way because the eggplant changed color to pukey brown color lol.


Nothing wrong with that method; actually a very sensible idea. But it could be that you just steamed it a little too long. Between 10 and 15 minutes is enough, whereas the rice probably takes 20 or 25 minutes to be done.


The cilantro I usually find in the wet market goes by the Chinese name 香菜。So many fresh herbs here in Spring and Summer; got to love it.


The one I have trouble finding here in Kunming, for some strange reason, is basil. Several varieties are used a lot in Thailand, and I would have thought it would also be common here. Have you been able to find it locally? Aren't you in Beijing, or did I remember that wrong?


Anyone know what basil is most commonly called in these parts? Or what varieties are most often found in the south of China? I find several dictionary names for it, but don't know which ones actually work and which ones are just academic and never used in daily life. (Guess I could do some online searching.)

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Anyone know what basil is most commonly called in these parts?


Asked some people. Seems that 罗勒 is the most common term, but that it's not at all popular, at least in this region.



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