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The slow pleasures of Chinese cooking

What, Barbara Tropp would like to know, is wrong with doing a little cooking?

"Cooking is a pleasure, a commitment," says the chef, restaurateur and cookbook author, whose latest book is the "China Moon Cookbook," named after her restaurant in San Francisco. "And it's really a joy."

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She understands, but has little patience for, the excuses that keep '90s folks out of the kitchen.

Cooking is just not that hard, she says. "It's easy, easy, easy. And yet we've developed in our country in the 1990s an appetite for doing everything, for solving all our problems in a second. And that's not the way it happens.

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"We've gotten so scared in our modern lives of making the commitment to read a three- or four-page recipe. We want to hear it all in a sound bite.

"But the good thing about cooking," Ms. Tropp adds, "is that it takes very little time to learn how to cook, but it's so quick once you know. You can go home and throw together a meal in minutes, because you know what you're doing.

"Cooking is sexy stuff. We really need to have that layer of sensuality in our lives. It's such a fun, sexy, sensual, exciting thing to do. I think we would all be a lot saner if we cooked."

Ms. Tropp, in Baltimore recently on a tour promoting her cookbook, came to her passion from unlikely circumstances. She grew up in New Jersey, where her mother was a doctor and a health-food fanatic -- "so I ate things like wheat germ."

A freshman course in Chinese literature at the University of Pittsburgh changed her life. She became a Chinese scholar, and in the '70s she went to Taiwan to study. She stayed two years.

Ms. Tropp loved the culture, but she was enthralled by the food.

"When I went to Taiwan, I was this traumatized, 1960s-style vegetarian. And I fell into this Jolly Green Giant Land, where there was no food that was fearful. The Chinese were a joyful group of people who were totally unneurotic about food."

Ms. Tropp was amazed to discover that the Chinese ate what they wanted, when they wanted, and were virtually devoid of the diet-related diseases suffered by Westerners.

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Real Chinese food is not all "glop and goo," as served in mediocre Chinese restaurants, she says. It is an almost exact representation of the new nutrition food pyramid promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.

"It's based on grain, topped with vegetables, amply seasoned, with an almost condiment-like use of meats," she says. The base of the USDA food pyramid is cereals and grains, the next largest tier is fruits and vegetables, and above that, the second-smallest layer, is meats and poultry and dairy products." (Oils, fats and sweets get the tiniest piece of the pyramid, at the top.)

"A real Chinese table is a mixture," she says. "To be healthy in China is to be in balance."

When she returned from China to New Jersey, she was "famished" for the food she had enjoyed and began to teach herself to cook it. She worked as a caterer and gave Chinese cooking classes, and one day, she piled her belongings in her 1968 Volvo and drove to San Francisco.

"I found myself right in the middle of what was becoming the California cooking movement," Ms. Tropp says. "And there weren't too many people doing what I was doing. All kinds of doors opened up."

Alice Waters was reinventing cuisine at Chez Panisse in Berkeley; chefs who later became famous, like Jeremiah Tower and Mark Miller, were just starting out, she recalls. "It was just the beginning of everything that later would take the culinary world by storm. And we were all friends -- and we are still. It was just a great time to be in that scene."

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It seemed a logical step to move from catering and teaching cooking to writing a cookbook. Ms. Tropp's first was the scholarly "The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking." It was, like Julia Child's famous first work, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," a "tell-all" work designed for people who were learning from scratch.

"Most of us don't know how to begin cooking Chinese-style at home," Ms. Tropp says. "I've written two cookbooks in the tell-all style."

Among other messages: Chinese cooking is not all "banquet" cooking with lots of dishes, ingredients and fancy equipment. You don't even need a wok to re-create it. "A wok doesn't work well on an American stove," Ms. Tropp says. "You'll get along a lot better and be a lot happier with a big, friendly skillet.

"We're at a point in this country with Chinese cooking that we were 20 years ago with French cooking," she says. "When you look at 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' now, no one thinks that that's difficult. Now people do not think anything of making an omelet at home -- meaning it's so easy, we know how to do this with our eyes closed. Well, she spent seven pages writing about how to make an omelet, because if you really want to know how to do it, the first time you want to read every word on those seven pages."

Many of the new "China Moon Cookbook's" lessons are in the beginning of the book, the "pantry" section. "The idea is that if you love pickled ginger, you should know how to make it at home," she says. "It takes 15 minutes, it's vinegar, salt sugar and ginger. That's it.

Like all her California colleagues, Ms. Tropp is a passionate advocate of fresh ingredients. "I have a great fear of fast food and processed food. You don't know what goes in it. And there's no fun in making it."

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She hopes the current trend to shun foods because of fears of their effects represents the highest point for that pendulum, and that soon it will begin to swing back toward enjoyment. "We're all so busy cleaning off our cutting boards from salmonella that we don't talk about how things should really taste," she says.

"In a very short while, I think we're going to discover that a lot of things we've been paralyzed about are actually not actively harmful," she says. "And we'll start looking for things to do. How do we enjoy each other otherwise?

"How do you enjoy your kids unless you cook for them? If you raise your family on fast food, you have a fast relationship. You don't know them."

* For Ms. Tropp, "home cooking" means whole-family cooking. When we're all home at the end of the day, you get everybody in the kitchen helping to produce a meal. And it doesn't have to be elaborate; we're doing one-dish dinners these days."

Readers may look at a recipe in the "China Moon Cookbook," see 12 ingredients and become alarmed, she says, but those are the only ingredients needed for a meal. And if yours is a small family, she says, you may get dinner and lunch from a single recipe. Despite the number of ingredients, the dishes usually cook quickly, some in just a few minutes.

The following recipes illustrate another of Ms. Tropp's principles. The first is a basic, or "pantry" recipe that makes enough to use in many dishes. The next uses the first item among its ingredients.

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If you can't find all the ingredients in your supermarket, try an Asian market. You will also need a deep-fat thermometer for the first recipe; use care to avoid burns while working with the hot oil.

Chili-orange oil Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

3 large oranges with unblemished skins

1/2 cup "shockingly" pungent dried red chili flakes

3 tablespoons Chinese black beans (do not rinse), coarsely chopped

1 to 2 large cloves garlic, lightly smashed and peeled

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2 cups corn or peanut oil

1/4 cup Japanese sesame oil

Wash the oranges carefully with a liquid detergent, warm water and an abrasive sponge. Peel away the thin layer of orange zest (leaving behind the white pith) and finely mince it.

Combine minced zest with the remaining ingredients in a heavy, non-aluminum 2- to 2 1/2 -quart saucepan. Bring to 225 to 250 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, and let it bubble for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand until cool, or overnight.

Scrape oil and seasonings into a glass or plastic container, cover and store at cool room temperature.

Wok-seared duck breasts Serves four as a main dish.

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2 whole boneless fresh duck breasts with skin on, cut in half (4 pieces)

2 to 4 tablespoons corn or peanut oil, for searing

FOR THE MARINADE:

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons mushroom soy sauce

1/4 cup Chinese rice wine or dry sherry

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1 tablespoon China Moon chili-orange oil

1 tablespoon sugar

1 whole scallion, cut into 1-inch pieces and smashed

4 quarter-size pieces of fresh ginger, smashed

1 tablespoon finely slivered coriander leaves and stems

Trim the borders of the duck breasts, removing the fillets, excess fat, and cartilage. Reserve the fillets for another use.

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In a bowl, mix together the marinade ingredients. Add the duck breasts and turn to coat thoroughly. Set aside to marinate at room temperature for 1 hour. Drain the marinade and discard the solids.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Move a rack to the upper third.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 2 teaspoons of the oil to glaze the bottom. When the oil is nearly smoking, add the duck breasts, skin side down, in a single layer and cook until the skin browns, about 2 minutes. Turn and brown the second side, about 1 minute more. The duck should be golden brown on the outside and still raw inside. If the skillet is not large enough to hold all the breast pieces at once, clean it well before searing the next batch. Drain the breasts, skin side down, on paper towels.

Place the breasts, skin side up, on a baking sheet and roast in the oven until medium rare, 3 or 4 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a knife point at the thickest portion.

Serve the breasts sliced thinly across the grain into ribbons. They are delicious eaten immediately or at room temperature.



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