Fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables.
As a physician, I have recommended “fruits and vegetables” to a gazillion patients. “Mike, your cholesterol is too high. Eat more fruits and vegetables.” “You want to lose weight, Carol? Fruits and vegetables.” “Callie, you’ll lower your blood sugar eating fewer refined carbs and more fruits and vegetables.” In this morning’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, medical columnist Dr. Roach urged “more fruits and vegetables” for lowering blood pressure.
In this year of COVID, Fuchsia Dunlap’s 2013 cookbook Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking is just what the doctor ordered. She writes, “this is primarily a book about how to make vegetables taste divine with very little expense or effort.” Fuchsia Dunlap is a British writer “who was the first Westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine,” according to the book jacket.
Well, this is my summer to put up or shut up. My refrigerator is bulging with spinach, four different kinds of lettuces, bok choy, eggplant, zucchinis, mushrooms, corn in the husk, peppers in every color, arugula, carrots and bunches of cilantro, parsley, green onions and dill. Also, plums, oranges, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, apples and a cantaloupe. Tomatoes, bananas, onions, potatoes and basil sit on the counter and in the pantry.
My boatload of vegetables is a direct result of the coronavirus. I have cut down trips to the grocery store to once every two weeks. This changes my shopping calculus. God forbid I should run out of onions or garlic or tomatoes or potatoes before the next trip. I load up with back-up vegetables. I’ve become a hoarder.
In mid-April, I subscribed to a produce delivery service, also once every two weeks. I sort of enjoy the potluck, “who knows what you’ll get” nature of the program. Oh, look, as I pull three acorn squashes, five pounds of carrots and three beets out of the cardboard box. Too bad Bill doesn’t eat squash or carrots or beets. (Hint: they are all delicious when roasted with butter and brown sugar.) My usual response of “More for me!” when Bill doesn’t like something is tinged with panic at the prospect of eating all that.
Then Bill’s garden came in! We’re not traveling because of COVID, so he’s around to water every day and keep the weeds down. Despite our constant harvesting, the rows of lettuces look full and leafy. The bok choy and basil too. What grows faster than your hair? Your vegetables! The tomatoes are just turning red. There will be way too many.
I wonder why can’t I just luxuriate in the summer abundance? Enjoy all my menu options? Of course, I do. Opening up the produce box is akin to Christmas morning. I feel parental pride when I survey the garden from my back porch. I am especially pleased with myself when I utilize an assortment of produce at one meal. I call this dish “hash”: caramelized onions and green peppers, browned potato slices, cherry tomatoes with an assortment of lettuces on top.
But I also feel stress and guilt. I worry that things will spoil. Letting food rot is a capital crime to any Chinese. (One way of saying hello in Chinese literally translates to: “Have you eaten?”) I feel guilty that I’m grumbling about something so trivial in the face of dire food insecurity for so many. But I resent the cleaning, sorting, chopping. I hate the mental acrobatics of figuring what to cook to maximize vegetable usage.
Are the zucchinis getting soft? Corn will turn starchy sitting in the fridge. The peppers have spots. The peaches are ripe and must be moved out of the closet. The mushrooms feel slimy. The onions are growing shoots. On and on.
I bought Every Grain of Rice some years back based on the rave reviews and the stunning photos. But I haven’t used it much. It seems petty, but as a Chinese person who’s eaten Chinese food my whole life, I didn’t need Dunlap to explain to me that Chinese cooking mostly consists vegetables. Or, maybe I’m just jealous of someone with a cool name like Fuchsia.
Putting that aside, there is much I can learn. Dunlap explains the array of Chinese cooking techniques: Stir-frying, Slow-cooking, Deep-frying, Steaming. One that I did not know about is called Oil-sizzling. “[Y]ou blanch or steam your main ingredients (perhaps a whole fish or some leafy green vegetables) and lay them out neatly on a serving plate. You scatter them with slivered spring onions and ginger. You heat a little oil until it emits a thin smoke, then pour it over the onions and ginger…You then pour over soy sauce, usually diluted with hot water.”
I am embracing the main point that Dunlap makes in Every Grain of Rice. She urges her readers to “feel free to use your imagination and improvise with whatever you can find in your fridge or cupboard.”
I am improvising like crazy. Many of Dunlap’s ingredients would require a trip to the Chinese store. I’m not going right now. So, instead of Shaoxing wine, I am using Budweiser beer. Instead of blanching or steaming, I microwave. I don’t have Chinkiang vinegar. Heinz will have to do.
I am improvising quite far from Dunlap’s purview of Chinese food. I am going global. I use garlic, green peppers and onions as a base, then add tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplants. By changing herbs and spices, I come up with mostaccioli or chili or imam bayildi (Turkish) or jambalaya. Of course, there is always salad, currently jazzed up by the garden’s dill, basil and cilantro.
I know that come this winter, when all is drab, I will look at this time as a sun-splashed heyday and forget all my petty annoyances. And I wonder if I’ll be able to get off my cholesterol medicine.
Tell me: How has COVID changed your eating habits?