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Winter Eating to Keep Warm

I’ve just returned from a couple weeks in Paris (playing concerts, seeing art, eating food). It was winter in Paris—a bit rainy, damp, not quite freezing—in a word, it can be bone chilling, especially during the long walks required by the beauty of that city. Now we’re back in New York, back to a historically cold winter—much colder and much drier than Paris. Between the two cities and the two very different types of winter chill, I’ve been thinking how important it is to cook for the seasons. As climate change will likely bring more erratic extremes of weather, skill in seasonal cooking is an essential tool for physical comfort, warding off illnesses and avoiding feeling overwhelmed by something like an unusually harsh winter.

So tonight, with snow outside and temperatures in the teens, I cooked a warming favorite for the family, Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup. Taiwan is a fairly warm place, but winter can be chilling and modern insulation relatively rare. This dish began as street food but has since spread to high cuisine levels in Taipei, one of the world’s great culinary destinations. Every cook has their own version, hotly contested. Here’s a version I learned.

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

Use a large soup pot, high heat to start. In the hot pot, add:

2 tbsp good quality cooking oil

3 or 4 generous slices fresh ginger, slivered

5 scallions, chopped

3-5 star anise

3-5 pieces dried tangerine peel (available in Asian markets, or substitute a few fresh citrus peels)

1/2 tsp whole peppercorns

2 whole cloves

Heat the spices in the oil to bring out aromas, then add

2-3 pounds beef stew meat (chuck, shank, whatever you like... in Taiwan short rib is used), as small chunks or shredded.

Salt (generous pinch or pinches)

After the meat browns a bit (separate browning is not necessary), add

3/4 cup tamari (or good soy sauce)

1 cup rice wine (Chinese rice wine, sake, or dry white wine)

1/4 cup black vinegar (half red wine vinegar and half balsamic will do, but do search for an authentic, naturally brewed Chinese black vinegar, it’s a fantastic ingredient).

1/4 cup barley malt syrup (or substitute honey, agave etc., in slightly less amount)

5-6 cups stock or water (there is no substitute for home-made stock or bone stock—see previous blog entry on bone stock. Rather good stock is now readily available in butcher shops, but I never use boxed stock from supermarkets… simple water is preferable. There will be plenty of flavor).

Bring to a boil then immediately reduce to a simmer, cook for 1 hour, all day, or somewhere in between.

Fifteen minutes before serving, put on some noodles in a separate pot (see note below) and add some green vegetables to the main pot. In Taiwan, pickled mustard greens are used, and while available in most Chinatown markets, it is an overly exotic ingredient for most Westerners. It’s important to strike the balance between authenticity and something you’re willing to cook and serve regularly. We usually use fresh bok choy, kale, or fresh mustard greens. Any green will do.

Place a portion of drained noodles in each serving bowl, then ladle the beef soup on top. The amount of liquid should be between a soup and a stew, so that there are spoons of broth to be had but the focus of the dish is clearly on the solid food.

Just before serving the steaming, aromatic bowl of goodness to your people, add a generous bunch of chopped fresh cilantro (coriander leaf) and a generous splash of toasted sesame oil. This recipe will serve 6-8 as a main course or single bowl meal. Leftovers are wonderful the next day.

Options: I’ll often add root vegetables to this or any stew, particularly thickly-sliced daikon, carrots, turnip or burdock root. Tonight it was daikon and mushrooms.

A note on noodles: In Taipei, Beef Noodle Soup is always served with long, fat wheat noodles. The easiest substitute is Japanese udon noodles, but any noodle will do, such as linguini. In Chinese food lore, long noodles are prized as a symbol of long life, and substitutions are out of the question. Symbols are important, but use what you have. Tonight I used farfalle (bow tie pasta) -- cooked aggressively al dente -- totally untraditional, but it's what was in the cupboard and it's just too cold outside to go hunt for noodles.

What about wheat, isn’t wheat controversial? It’s clear that wheat, especially modern hybridized wheat, is causing problems for a lot of people, but it does have its uses. Wheat is a very warming and fortifying grain, perfect for winter eating. In the kitchen, always think on your feet, adapting any and all recipes for the health needs of those you are cooking for. If wheat is a problem, use rice noodles, serve directly over a steamed grain (rice, millet, quinoa, etc) or if following a paleo trend, without any grain at all.

Meat itself is, of course, distinctly warming. In Chinese Medicine dietetics, different meats have differing thermostatic influence: legless shellfish and fish are cooling, pork is mildly warming, beef and bison warming, lamb more so, venison a bit more, chicken and turkey have a hot and drying effect (more on this in my food energetics book, due soon). Of course vegetarian versions are possible, using tofu or red beans and more root vegetables. Although noticeably less warming, the essence of the dish remains: ginger, scallion, star anise, citrus peel, cilantro, broth.

The spices and herbs in this dish have warming and spreading qualities. Spices are very important for keeping the soup from being too heavy, or in more precise terms, for spreading the nourishing effects through the body. If cold hands and feet are a problem, add some cinnamon to the dish. If high blood pressure, acid reflux or insomnia are problems, omit the peppercorns. In Taipei, this dish is nearly always served with hot spices such as chili oil or hot peppers (capsicum). Use your discretion, but do keep in mind that the support of deeply warming food can be lost by too much spicy heat; hot spicy food can be entertaining, but regular use dries the system, setting the stage for a wide variety of health problems. It’s better to enjoy the richly subtle tastes that align with the goals of healthful eating.


Further Notes Of Food Theory

In Chinese Medicine dietetics all foods are categorized according to their thermostatic effects. A given food is warming, cooling or neutral (occasionally even cold or hot). Meats and most beans are warming, grains are warming or neutral, vegetables are generally cooling. Integrating with a Western point of view, foods high in protein are warming, as are foods high in calories (fats, carbs, sugars), while vegetables are cooling (higher in water content, anti-oxidants, etc.) Cooking method is also an essential factor. Cooking adds warmth (yang qi) to foods as well as beginning the digestion process in important ways. A vegetable may be cooling, but when cooked it is far less cooling than the same vegetable eaten raw. Spices also add a crucial aspect to a meal’s energetics. The heavier foods suitable for Winter eating can be made more digestible and less heavy by skillful use of herbs and spices.

As with all things, balance is key. Food that is too warming or with spices that are hot (for example, chili peppers) rather than warming can backfire. Excessively stimulating, these meals can open the pores and cause sweating, leaving us feeling colder and eventually compromising our resistance to colds and flu. Many of us make ourselves vulnerable to the germs of the world by remaining under-hydrated and under-rested. One of the main functions of good cold-weather cooking is supporting fluids through wet-cooked foods (porridges, soups, stews) and insuring that these fluids are circulating once digested (spices are very helpful here). Wet-cooked foods are more effective for bringing fluids where they’re needed than even drinking water or juices. With porridge, soup or stews, digestion is slowed, there is more time to absorb fluids and there are vegetables and spices to direct the fluids upward (simply drinking water tends to ‘go right through us’ faster).

More on wet-cooked foods (particularly breakfasts) soon.

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