Saturday, November 3, 2007

Chop it to me

If you can remember the 80s, you can probably remember chop suey, though it was certainly long past its heyday by then. Its arc from exotic favorite of snazzy coastal taste-makers to a safe "ethnic" dish for Middle America's Tuesday night suppers was decades long and has finally reached its end. My sister, born in 1993, has never tasted chop suey and probably never will -- unless, of course, I make her my tasty, almost-vegetarian update of this classic pseudo-Chinese comfort food.

My Grandma Lee, an Italian-American from Chicago who was, frankly, not much of a cook, always brushed off an old recipe for chop suey during my long summer visits. I was ambivalent about the pile of limp, shredded veggies and bits of anonymous meat in a sauce that was satisfying primarily for its saltiness. Chop suey sure wasn't egg drop soup at the local early-bird restaurant or a Chicken McNugget-and-strawberry shake Happy Meal at one of the original McDonald's or Franco mints at the Marshall-Field's in downtown Chicago (my regional favorites), but it was tasty enough to keep my interest for at least six minutes at the dinner table (safely distracted from plotting diabolical pranks that resulted in boxes of puzzle pieces raining down upon the unsuspecting head of my poor grandparents -- and much worse).

The provenance of chop suey (from a Mandarin phrase that translates to "odds and ends") is murky. It may or may not be an American invention; it may or may not have been a cheap eat created for/by Chinese-American miners and/or laborers building the transcontinental railways; it may or may not have been a San Francisco chef's late-night solution to a pack of drunken revelers. One thing we know is true: it was Buster Keaton's "favorite dish," as recorded by the Beverly Hills Women's Club in Fashion in Food in Beverly Hills (1930). This the recipe included in American Food Writing.

My version replaces pork with seitan, a new obsession for me, and chicken with firm tofu (inspired in part by Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, another new obsession). I used chicken broth, though, which kind of ruins the mood, but it's what I had on hand. Instead of three cups of canned mushrooms I sprang for the real thing, a combination of shiitake and cremini (I might have done all shiitake if I could afford it). I should have replaced regular soy sauce with a low-sodium version and/or reduced the amount (a whole cup!).

The result was as salty and soothing as a bowl of chicken noodle soup and lasted my roommates and I a whole week. While yummy and addictive like salty popcorn, it definitely suffered from sodium overload. The recipe below is a reflection of what I wish I had done. And since you sure as hell ain't gonna find this on any Beverly Hills menus these days, if you want your wee children to get a taste of this steaming bowl of melting pot Americana, you'll have to make it at home.

Updated, Almost Vegetarian Chop Suey

2 tbsp. peanut oil
2 balls of seitan, sliced thin (about 1.5 cups)
2 cups of chestnuts, cut into discs
2 1/2 cups bamboo shoots
2 cups baby bok choy, chopped into small pieces (or other Chinese green)
2 cups chopped celery
3 cups mushrooms, sliced thin (I used a combination of shiitake and cremini)
1 cup onion, diced
5 cups bean sprouts
1/2 cup chopped tamari-roasted almonds (or plain almonds)
2 tbsp. corn starch
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken stock or vegetable stock
1/2 - 1 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1 package (about 2 cups) firm tofu, cut into 1" cubes
1/4 cup chopped green onions

1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large pot.
2. Fry the seitan slices until well browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Flip over and cook other side. Remove seitan to a paper towel and reserve.
3. Put the chestnuts, bamboo shoots, celery, mushrooms, onion, and bean sprouts in the pot and pour in 2 & 1/2 cups water. Over medium heat, stir vegetables as water begins to gently boil. After ten minutes, lower the heat slightly, cover the pot, and allow vegetables to steam for 30 minutes.
4. Add the stock mixed with corn starch. If it's too thick, add a bit more stock; if it's too thin, add more corn starch.
5. Add soy sauce, starting with just half a cup, taste and increase as desired. Add tofu and seitan. Cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Toss in the green onions just before serving.


Karyn said...

Chop suey's just so fun to say . . . sodium can certainly add up in Chinese dishes. I've learned not to salt if I'm using anything but no-sodium salt, and if I'm combining ingredients, I underseason. I love my salt, but not when it causes your mouth to foam (due to low blood pressure, I had to be on salt pills for awhile. I learned to drink them with water. Lots of water).

I'll have to try this with the tofu. :)

Ann said...

Oh hell, I'd forgotten all about chop suey. But yours looks appealing... so I may have to try it.

I've always, always gotten chop suey with bean sprouts in it, though, which I notice yours does not have. Personally I'd reduce the soy sauce to 1/4 cup and increase the amount of chicken or veggie broth.

Karyn said...

I meant to say low-sodium broth. Low-sodium salt might be hard to find.

Nora Leah said...

Oops! Did I leave out the bean spouts on recipe? Must fix that, b/c there was def. plenty of 'em. I love sprouts SO much, esp. this certain type, name escapes me, they look sort of like multi-hued peas, ranging from olive green to pale yellowish green. They have very short "tails" (ie, the sprout part). In this chop suey I used the "regular" kind, long white tails, tiny green bodies, kind of like tadpoles.

When I'm trying to be good, I much on those crunch pea-like sprouts while sitting in front of laptop, looking at food blogs or writing my own (I find it very difficult to do this w/o a snack on hand. I've often wondered if others have that problem??)

Susan said...

Would you believe I have never eaten chop suey, and I was around in the '80s. My husband's late grandfather used to eat chop suey sandwiches. He loved them, but I wouldn't dare try them because of the soggy bread.

Nora Leah said...

Chop suey sandwiches?! That's quite similar to the St Paul sandwich, a St Louis specialty that has nothing to do w my hometown of St Paul, MN. It's egg foo young between two slices of white bread with mayo. I've never eaten one -- I've been doing research on regional foods and it's come up. I suppose given the chance I would try one (once, right?) but can't say I'm dying to do so...

danny said...

what is seitan?

LunaPierCook said...

"When I'm trying to be good, I much on those crunch pea-like sprouts while sitting in front of laptop, looking at food blogs or writing my own (I find it very difficult to do this w/o a snack on hand. I've often wondered if others have that problem??)"

Nora, I thought this was very interesting, so ... I'm not sure if you've discovered that I did this ...

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