We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

San Francisco Chinatown and Szechuan-Style Ma-La Green Beans

My Traveling Tales by Michelle

I never look back, darling! It distracts from the now.
                                                                                      ~Edna Mode, The Incredibles

   Nostalgia. It's not just a noun. The word is also, apparently, a destination. I know because  I visited there recently. Unintentionally, and in Phoenix, of all places. Who knew that the sprawling urbanism of an overgrown - and ever growing - desert metropolis could invoke the feeling of sentimental yearning... in me, of all people? I don't think of myself as a maudlin person, but I confess, I sat at dinner, alone, suddenly wistful over the past, seeing the ghost of myself in my twenties living in Scottsdale, enjoying a young professional person's lifestyle along the Camelback corridor. Surely, this is a sign of age, of looking back and remembering, viewing the past through rose-colored glasses.
   Typically, when I reflect, Robert Frost-style, upon the road not taken, my mind immediately diverts to San Francisco, not Phoenix. In the mid-nineties I moved with my newly minted husband from Scottsdale to San Jose, California. We lived close enough to San Francisco for a visit to be a fun day trip, but the city was still far enough in distance to remove the spontaneity factor, especially after I gave birth to our daughter. Even though our family didn't visit often, I still knew San Francisco was only 60 miles to the north, and that gave me comfort. San Francisco will always be one of my favorite destinations.
   If the dot.com bust had not occurred in 2000, along with the ensuing technology meltdown of 2001, I'm pretty sure we'd still be living in our ranch home, with the tile roof, red door and big back yard with a beautiful lawn and trees, including two apricots and a cherry. There I go waxing nostalgic again. Facts are facts and I can't take them back. After the nineties boom, came the bust. The bubble burst, then September 11th followed, and there was no telling how long the recovery would take, for both the hi-tech industry and the country. My husband and I were grateful to sell our house without taking a financial loss. We pulled up stakes and moved to Arizona. But not to Phoenix, because we had been down that road before and I knew for a fact it is too dang hot. We opted for a quieter lifestyle, and somewhat cooler climate, in Tucson.

Juliette, Linda and I enjoying Sistercation in San Francisco.
   A few years ago we took a run at living in California once again. Going in we knew it would be a one year commitment so my daughter could complete seventh grade. Maddie has always taken great pride in being a native Californian, living her first five years in the state. Seventh grade was a magical year for Maddie, deepening her adoration for the state. The students at her school in Sebastopol were really nice kids and it was thankfully a drama-free year, unlike sixth grade the prior year in Tucson. I marvel that her first year of junior high was devoid of the usual upheaval associated with young teenagers gathered together in confined spaces. After graduating from high school in Arizona, Maddie has set her sights on attending college in California. She is counting down the days until she can return to her home state. Her gaze is pointed towards Stanford.
   Since returning to Tucson, Maddie and I have returned annually to visit Auntie Linda. The one destination on our list for every visit, aside from one of our favorite walking beaches, is Chinatown. Talk about feeling nostalgic. My gray matter is filled with remembrances of walking Grant Avenue with many of my favorite people. I don't think any of us have walked away empty handed from visiting the touristy shops. Over the years Linda and I have had many a discussion on how to get some large oddly proportioned purchase from a store to our car, parked many blocks away, and down a hill at the St. Mary's Square Garage. On our last visit we were more practical and we both found Kwan Yin carved jade pendants to our liking. Linda and I tend to gravitate towards and wear similar jewelry. We even have matching toe rings from an adventure in Las Vegas. I will rue the day I feel nostalgic over Sin City. I'm sure that day is coming, but I don't encourage it. I'd rather pine for glorious days spent leisurely in Northern California.
Maddie deciding which good luck charms to buy for herself and as gifts for her friends.
   Maddie and I always buy good luck charms when in Chinatown. I have mine looped through the zipper pull on my rolling briefcase, and Maddie likes to hang a charm or two from the handle on her purse. The key is to know in advance who you might be buying the charms for and knowing each person's birth year. We rarely stray from Grant Avenue (which oddly enough is a street named after our 18th President), but one visit I had a burr to find Waverly Place, a street that is well-known and photographed for its painted balconies. During our diversion from Grant, we happened upon a jewelry store one block west of Grant at the corner of Clay and Waverly Place that has a wonderful selection of charms (and for less money than the more touristy shops on Grant).   
   Without fail we always visit the multi-level Canton Bazaar, located on Grant, just north of Old St. Mary's Church. You'd think it was a bank because Linda and I have deposited a fair amount of money at their cash registers over the years on both floors. We have found everything from jewelry boxes to kitchen gear including cast iron tea pots (that are perpetually marked at a 40% discount) and Sukiyaki pots. I also was thrilled to find small, round Hibachi-style cast iron grills. Instead of grilling on them, I put a can of sterno in the belly and it keeps a food filled Sukiyaki pot warm while attractively displaying hot foods on a buffet. With the rise of gasoline prices, shipping packages has become so expensive that I pretty much now stick now to buying lighter, hand carry items that I can pack in my purse or tuck in with my laptop.

Standing at Peking Bazaar looking toward Canton Bazaar and Old St. Mary's Church.
Just inside the front door at Canton Bazaar.
Take the stairs to the right of the front door leading down to an assortment
of kitchen wares and statuary at Canton Bazaar.
   One year Linda and I managed to accomplish almost all of our Christmas shopping at the one kitchen store in Chinatown to rule them all: The Wok Shop. We were mutually on a hunt for cleavers, and the cheerful sales woman entertained us with stories of miniscule Chinese kitchens with only room for a small cutting board and one small cleaver. Not only did we buy cleavers for ourselves, we also bought cleavers for practically all of our friends and relatives. I love the cleaver so much that I've even packed it in my bags for vacations knowing that most knives at destination rentals are awful.
   The item that I bought at The Wok Shop before moving from California to Arizona in 2001, was my big wok and matching lid. I could foresee pulling the wok from my kitchen cabinet over the future years to come, and with each use, I would think back to that day, bittersweet that it was with the knowledge that I was soon leaving Northern California and bidding my temporary goodbyes to San Francisco. In the future I would be visiting as a tourist, and not as a resident of the Bay area. That knowledge still tugs at my heart whenever I visit.

One of my favorite model photos was taken here by acclaimed
photographer Scott Robert Lim.
A customer browses the goods inside The Wok Shop.

I am partial to the old neon signs in the neighborhood but...
... something about combining Buddha and cocktails in neon doesn't seem quite right.

   Peking Bazaar sits across the street from Canton Bazaar. Evidently the locals like bazaars in Chinatown. And, coincidentally, so do we. Peking has very reasonable prices on statuary, vases, lanterns and souvenir type tchotchkes. I am particularly fond of the dragons hanging from the ceiling.

   Even if you don't buy one gift or souvenir, it is always enjoyable wandering around Chinatown taking in the sites and sounds and smells, even if it is raining, which often seems to be the case. Plus, you can wax nostalgic later, tapping into those special memories and remember the good old days in San Francisco "way back when".

Szechuan-Style Ma-La Green Beans

   If Bon Appétit Magazine asked me what five things I always have in my refrigerator, I would include Ma-La Oil and Spicy Citrus Chili Oil along with cheddar cheese, salsa and sourdough starter. The infused oils can be prepared days, or weeks, or even months in advance, so there is really no excuse for not making these useful oils. Once you make them, you will find a variety of uses for them. I know I have. For further inspiration check-out our recipe for Dragon Noodles. The oils are also perfect dunking sauces for Pot Stickers.
   You can choose between several cooking methods. The green beans can be steamed, blanched, roasted and fried. Betelnut, a now shuttered restaurant that was located on Union Street in San Francisco, received on-going rave reviews for their wildly popular Szechuan-style green beans. Turns out that the wonderful texture of the green beans was produced by first deep frying and then finishing the beans by sautéing in a sauce. Regardless of the cooking method, be sure to dress the beans while they are still warm because they soak up the dressing better.
   Linda dreamed up these beans on a whim one day finding inspiration in the oils she had on hand. She sent me an e-mail with general directions on how to make the beans, and I too have been making them ever since. We typically make the beans as an appetizer, but I have also served them as a side dish.

For about one pound of beans:
about 2 Tbsps of "the goop" from the bottom of the jar of Spicy Citrus Chili Oil
about 1 Tbsps rice wine vinegar or juice from homemade pickled ginger
about 1 Tbsp tamari (for gluten-free) or soy sauce
a pinch or two of sea salt, if needed (particularly if you are using low sodium tamari)
a drizzle of agave syrup, if sweetness is desired

Blanch the beans quickly, just long enough to stop the cooking process,
then promptly remove from ice water, shaking dry and dressing immediately.

1. Make the Ma-La Oil and Spicy Citrus Chili Oil a minimum of 24 hours in advance to concentrate the flavors.
2. Prep the green beans by removing the ends. I learned from Linda that instead of snapping the ends, it is far easier to line up five or so beans, and efficiently slice to remove the ends with a knife.
3a. To blanch the beans, fill a large pan halfway with water and bring to a boil over high heat. While you are waiting for the water to boil, fill a large salad bowl halfway with water and add ice cubes, enough to make the water very cold. When the water on the stove comes to a boil, add 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Add the beans, and cook for about 3 minutes, but no longer than 5, until the beans are crisp tender. Immediately transfer the blanched beans to the water to stop the cooking process. Let sit for up to a minute, then remove cooled beans to a colander. I don't particularly like cold beans, I much prefer them at room temperature*, so I get them in and out of the ice water quickly. Shake the beans well to remove excess moisture or pat dry with a super clean kitchen towel. Transfer beans to a prep bowl and dress immediately so the beans can begin soaking in the flavor.
3b. To roast the beans, Move the oven rack to the highest position to broil the beans. Wash and dry the beans. Pile the beans on a large rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with some olive oil. Toss the beans to evenly distribute the oil, then spread to a single layer. Broil the beans for about 10 minutes, stirring once, until tender and dotted with black spots. Remove from oven and dress immediately.
3c. To fry the beans, in a cast iron pan with deep sides, heat 2 cups of oil to 350°F. When hot quickly fry the beans until just cooked through. Depending upon thickness of the beans, this could take anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes, and up to 3. Fish the beans out of the oil with a spider-type strainer. Blot with paper towels to remove excess oils and dress.
4. This is a recipe where I don't really measure the ingredients. I drizzle a little of this or a little of that until I have the right mix of salty, sweet, sour, spicy. I like to let the beans sit for about a half hour at room temperature, tossing the beans every 5 minutes or so to redistribute the dressing and to let the flavor really permeate the beans.

*With that being said, I did just snack on a few beans directly from the refrigerator that I made yesterday for dinner, and the beans were delicious. I know one thing for sure, whether at room temperature or cold, these beans are addictive.

I adore the pungent smell of the sesame seed infused Ma-La Oil. The color is appealing, too.
Some of the aromatics that imbue infused oils with deep flavor: Sichuan pepper, 
chili flakes, fresh ginger and scallions.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully written and photographed post. Can't wait to try the beans!(PS: agree with you about Phoenix - too dang hot in the summer!!!)


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