One of my favorite cookbooks has been, for years and long before I thought of food publishing, Barbara Tropp’s 1982 The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. It doesn’t have the glossy photographs of Fuchsia Dunlop’s books, and the recipes are long – which might suggest complexity. But what Tropp does is take the reader by the hand and, with words, helps us see and taste and feel – before we write a shopping list or pick up a knife.
And she captures detail. I found myself thinking today of a passage about using the stems of spinach, the pink base that rises from the pale roots. Where had I read it, this perfect example of how Chinese cooks make use of things we carelessly discard? I wanted to write about how Chinese cuisine developed out of extreme scarcity, and that we have been wasting nutritious food and also missing out on new flavors and textures. I stood in front of my bookcase and reached for The Modern Art. My instinct was right: I checked the index for “Spinach” and found this recipe for “Stir-Fried Spinach with Charred Garlic” on page 305.
Here’s the introduction to the recipe:
My all-time favorite meal in New York City’s Chinatown (in a restaurant now defunct) was a pan-fried flounder so crisp that the bones were edible, and this slippery dish of garlic-tinged spinach. If you got there on a Tuesday night at about nine, the cook on duty would always char the garlic. If the garlic wasn’t burnt, the dish had no panache. • Loose, fresh spinach in clusters is best here. Avoid the bagged variety, if possible, and look for bunches of lively leaves atop thin, supple stems. • This is an exceedingly easy dish to make that is good hot or cold. The spinach may be washed and blanched hours ahead of time, then stir-fried within minutes. If you’re averse to charred garlic, you can knock several seconds off the cooking time.
TECHNIQUE NOTES: The Chinese, with their eye for color and their interest in texture, would not think of discarding the stems or the pretty, pink root ends of spinach. If they are young and lithe, as they should be, the stems are succulent. The tips, aside from being colorful, are crunchily sweet.
I’m hoping to republish this book as a Berkshire Classic. The recipe itself is very simple and I’ll make it soon and post with photos. The photo here shows the pink root ends. I had to find this online, because a search of my local markets taught me that spinach and other greens are increasingly sold trimmed and washed.
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