These days, over the course of a typical week, I bring home and cook about five pounds of meat and seafood. This may not seem like much for a family of four, but when you’re one person testing and retesting full recipes for a cookbook, it amounts to a lot of carnivorous consumption a week. (Leftovers, of course, are cheerfully shared.)
Meat is great and all, but sometimes you just crave vegetables for a meal.
It’s not that my cookbook has no vegetarian recipes, but as far as Chinese food goes, almost all of the most beloved dishes involve meat or seafood in some form or another. In both China and the US, all-vegetable soups often have a base of pork or chicken stock. Vegetarian stir-fries and tofu dishes sometimes have dried shrimp or ground pork as flavor enhancers. The only vegetarians you are likely to find in China are Buddhist monks.
Vegetarian travelers in China discover that when they tell restaurant waitstaff they don’t eat meat (rou) the waitstaff will suggest beef or chicken or maybe lamb, because rou is also the shortened and universal way of saying pork. (Zhu rou, the official dictionary term, is almost never used.) The travelers will then go on to list every single land and sea creature they do not eat, only to be told they have essentially eliminated every single item on the menu except boiled peanuts.
So it’s hard to avoid eating a lot of meat when you specialize in Chinese food.
Fortunately, when I don’t feel like doing one of my standard vegetable dishes, I’ve found inspiration for in other cookbooks. Yesterday I found a recipe for peppered asparagus in a Thai cookbook published in Australia. (It’s not fully vegetarian because of the fish sauce, but then again, most Asian cuisines dictate that having vegetables as the main ingredient is close enough.) The recipe called for a full tablespoon of crushed peppercorn. A tablespoon! That’s 24 times the amount that usually goes into a stir-fry, unless it’s in the marinade. Also, you begin the cooking with stir-frying the crushed pepper as an aromatic, like you would with garlic and ginger, instead of adding it at the end or with the sauce like in most stir-fries.
The recipe called for green peppercorn, but I substituted this peppercorn medley from McCormick’s that had green, black, pink, and white peppercorn, not to mention coriander and allspice. (I’m sure it’ll also taste fantastic if all you have is freshly ground black pepper.) At first, I was skeptical of using a full tablespoon, but surprisingly, stir-frying crushed peppercorn in oil at the beginning really mellows it out. And instead of sliced bird’s eye chili, I used crushed red pepper flakes for the smokiness. The rest of the flavoring is just the fish sauce, brown sugar, and cilantro (also added at the beginning, and also more mellowed than when adding it at the end).
Although the recipe title in the book mentions only asparagus, the directions have you add chopped green beans as well. My recipe calls for a pound of asparagus and a half pound of green beans, but I imagine fava beans or edamame would also be great substitutes for the latter.
Thai Peppered Asparagus
Adapted from Thai Cooking Step-by-Step
Serves 3 to 4 as part of a multi-course meal
1/2 tablespoon freshly ground peppercorn mix (or 1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper)
1/4 cup cilantro leaves and stems
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 pound asparagus, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths
1/2 pound green beans, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1. In a small bowl, mix the freshly ground peppercorn mix (or freshly ground black pepper) with the cilantro leaves and stems. Set aside.
2. Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat until a bead of water sizzles and evaporates on contact. Add the oil and swirl to coat the base and sides. Add the pepper, cilantro, and garlic and cook briefly until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the asparagus, green beans, and sugar and stir-fry for another minute. Add the water, cover, and steam for 2 minutes until the vegetables are crisp-tender.
3. Remove the lid and stir in the fish sauce and red pepper flakes. Cook for another 30 seconds or so to allow the flavors to blend, then transfer to a plate and serve.