The first cookbook I really remember reading was one of my mother's called "The Sixty-Minute Chef." My mother liked it because its aim was to help you cook a quick dinner (although my mother didn't think an hour was nearly quick enough). I liked it because it was filled with marvelous tales of meals served to a fabulous character known as The Judge, who terrorized the people around him by his love of good food. At the end of each tale was a recipe for some dish The Judge favored--remade in a more timely fashion. An old family recipe for soup ("It takes hours") was condensed into a 20-minute concoction consisting of a can of tomato soup mixed with a can of split pea soup and cream, then topped off with a dash of Sherry and a dollop of canned crab meat.
My mother thought these recipes were wonderful; I could barely choke them down. I knew that The Judge would never have swallowed such swill. One of my great pleasures was opening the book, reading about The Judge's meals and wondering what the dishes really tasted like.
Then I discovered another book that someone must have given my mother. I know she never used it. It was called "Feasts for All Seasons." The author, Roy A. de Groot, actually lived in our neighborhood, and when he talked about butchers and bakers and fishmongers, I knew which ones he meant. He wrote about each meal with such passion that I began begging my mother to let me cook. She was thrilled to oblige; at the age of 7 my great specialty was jambalaya (De Groot's recipe takes two full days).
The next cookbook that changed my life was "Diet for a Small Planet." I read it in the early '70s and promptly stopped eating meat. We didn't have much money anyway, but it was nice to plead politics instead of poverty. Those years of rice and beans, growing my own vegetables and baking my own bread were wonderful: I discovered all sorts of spices I never would have on the meat, cream and butter diet on which I was raised. Even today, I sometimes find myself pulling out my dogeared paperback and mixing up a nostalgic batch of Con Queso Rice.
But these days, the book I find myself using most often is Bruce Cost's "Asian Ingredients." I originally got it as a reference book, not a cookbook; a food writer can always use a handy guide to esoteric ingredients such as Chinese black vinegar (which Cost suggests is a good substitute for balsamic vinegar), fresh water chestnuts, tree ears and shark's fins. But you can't read this book without hungering for noodles and wontons and steamed vegetables and ricepots. Before too long I had even mustered up the courage to cook the amazingly rich Yangchow Pork with Pine Nuts.
Bruce Cost calls it the world's most luscious meat cake. Fresh bacon is stuffed with hand-chopped pork and pinenuts, briefly fried then slowly stewed in a mixture of rice wine, sugar, soy sauce and ginger. I first had the dish at a banquet in 1980; it changed the way I thought about Chinese food and I have remembered it vividly ever since. Cost's recipe says it serves 8, but the dish is actually so rich that most people can only eat a bite or two; in my house it will easily feed a dozen.
This isn't home cooking--and you couldn't begin to cook it in 60 minutes. It's a far cry from De Groot's repertoire, and Frances Moore Lappe, author of "Diet for a Small Planet," would certainly not consider this a politically correct dish. It's show-off food--the sort of thing you cook when you want people to remember what they've eaten. And it sure is good.
YANGCHOW PORK WITH PINE NUTS
3 pounds fresh bacon with rind (pork belly), in one piece
1 cup pine nuts, browned lightly in oil or toasted
1 tablespoon minced ginger root
1 1/2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
6 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
Peanut oil for deep-frying
3 cups chicken stock
3 cups water
4 approximately 1-inch cubes rock sugar
1/4 cup light soy sauce
4 green onions
3 thick slices ginger root
1 pound spinach or hearts of Shanghai bok choy
Cut rind from pork, leaving at least 1/4 inch fat on rind, and set aside. With heavy Chinese cleaver or French chef's knife, chop pork coarsely by hand. (This is best done by slicing and shredding it first.) When it has approximately the consistency of ground meat, transfer to mixing bowl. Chop pine nuts coarsely and add them. Add minced ginger, dark soy sauce, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, sugar, 1 egg, 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch and wine. Mix thoroughly, stirring by hand in one direction.
Turn pork rind skin side down on cutting board, and score fat in diamond pattern at 1/4-inch intervals. Sprinkle cornstarch over the fat and work in. Shake off any excess. Spread chopped pork mixture on fat, pressing it down, and mold into flat cake with wet hands. Blend other egg with 1 teaspoon cornstarch, and rub over ground pork.
Heat 6 cups or so of oil in large wok and when nearly smoking, slide pork into oil. Basting top of cake with spatula, brown pork for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove and drain.
In clean wok or large casserole, combine stock, water, rock sugar, light soy sauce, remaining 2 teaspoons salt, green onions and ginger slices, and bring to boil. Slide in meat cake, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, checking it and basting top with sauce from time to time. (You may have to add more water if sauce starts to thicken too soon.)
At end of 2 1/2 hours, transfer cake to large serving platter and keep warm. Strain sauce into clean pan, and turn heat to high to reduce. Meanwhile, steam spinach until it wilts and arrange around pork. When sauce becomes syrupy, pour over pork and spinach, and serve. Needless to say, this goes well with rice. It's also excellent reheated.
Note: The reason you hand-chop the pork, rather than having it ground, is that the texture is infinitely more pleasing.