Essential Chinese Spices and Where to Buy Them

Chinese spices

Star anise, dried chili, and red peppercorn

Cho Mien Nam Southern Variety Market Oriental Food and Gifts  (129 Wood Ave., Bridgeport (203) 579-9970) is a big, bustling paradise for lovers of Asian food.  It’s in the section of Bridgeport that has been dubbed “Little Asia.” There are two Vietnamese restaurants, and one Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant.  (My current favorite place for pho is Pho Thom, two blocks away on Wood Ave.)

When you walk into Cho mien Nam, whole fish on ice are the first things you’ll see, and a selection of fruit – spiked dragon fruit, durian, kumquats, pears, little bananas, avocados, and fresh lychees. The refridgerated produce section is filled with bags of fresh cilantro, mint, Thai basil, culantro, bean sprouts, eggplants, baby bok choy, all of it looking fresher than anything I see at the local supermarket.

At a table near the butcher’s counter, a table was stacked with containers of fresh spring rolls filled with shrimp, noodles and herbs. Behind them, a woman wielding a cleaver chopped up a whole roasted chicken, and then started in on some brown, scary-looking innards.

Then the delivery truck arrived and the crowded aisles became more cramped as the staff carried in big boxes containing sides of roasted pork and cartons of crisp, mahogany-hued duck.

Mien Nam has every type of noodle you can imagine – rice, bean thread, buckwheat. The frozen food section, which runs down one long wall, has everything from grated purple cassava to grey mullet.

But three rather ordinary spices have transformed my Chinese cooking.  Star anise, red peppercorns and dried chili peppers.  They are among the first spices that Jie sautes in oil when she begins cooking.

And when Jie makes her flavor-bomb ribs, she adds star anise, red peppercorns and dried chili peppers (and scallions, ginger, black peppercorns, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar) to the cooking water.  She usually cooks ribs in a pressure cooker. I don’t have a pressure cooker, so these ribs cooked for hours.



Jie’s amazing Chinese ribs

What To Do with Radishes



Radishes are traditionally eaten raw with butter and sea salt, but did you know you can cook the roots and leaves?

Radishes are in season at the farmers markets. The classic way to serve the fresh, crisp, pungent roots is raw, with butter and sea salt. I like to amp up the flavor with chive butter. But radishes can also be cooked. Their leaves can be added to pureed soups.  I’ve written about making radish leaf soup here:

The roots can be cooked too.  Cooking them brings out their hidden sweetness. Last night I cut a bunch of radishes in half lengthwise and braised them with duck legs. It was a seasonal way to add the traditional sweet touch to a duck dish. Another seasonal accompaniment is rubarb and strawberry compote.  I got radishes and rhubarb at the Black Rock Farmer’s Market last Saturday.


Tacos Worth Traveling For

La Mexicana

La Mexicana in Bridgeport has some awesome carnitas tacos, stuffed with soft pork shoulder and fat and skin, browned on the grill. The meat has a pleasing stickiness. The tacos come topped with minced raw onion, chopped cilantro, a squirt of lime, and there’s a red and green salsas on the side. (I loved the fresh green salsa.)  Ask for jalepenos — the spears of peppers are fresh, cooked until just soft.

1407 Fairfield Ave, Bridgeport, CT,(203) 549-9923


Black Rock Farmers Market Opens

AyfU7jFu3u-F4k2-0iDUHgkMgHjphlEE243d6leLG80[1]The new Black Rock Farmers Market rocks. It opened last Saturday at the field next to St. Ann’s on Brewster, right off Fairfield Ave. So many people came out that farmer Al Popp had to deliver more vegetables to Sport Hill Farm’s stand.  With live music, cooking demos, food samples, and fresh, locally grown organic veggies, the Black Rock Farmer’s Market seems like the right thing at the right time with the right people.


This is where I’m going tomorrow:

St. Ann’s Field, 481 Brewster St., Black Rock, Bridgeport, Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.,

The market runs June 7 through Oct. 25, 2014.



Governor’s Ball 2014

by Raj Ranade (photos by Jesse Mudrick)


The dream of 2001 was alive on Randall’s Island this weekend, as the Governors Ball Music Festival returned for its fourth year in New York City. While the EDM blasting from the sidestages and the hashtags littering the Jumbotrons left no doubt that this was a thoroughly contemporary festival, at least two of the performances made it possible to dream of that earlier time, when funk rap was going to transport us all to Stankonia and rough-and-tumble garage rock really was going to revive rock and roll. Continue reading

Learning to Cook and Eat Chinese

Chinese spagetti

Chinese green beans and noodles

I must admit that when the Chinese ladies Jun and Jie put dinner on the table, sometimes I think, “Is that enough for four?” And the dishes Jie makes are so good that I surely would give in to my gluttony and eat too much if there were more. But it has been most refreshing to leave the table feeling light.

Chinese dinner for 4

Dinner for four

I’m also struck by how little meat they use in a dish. Meat is more of a flavoring than the main deal. Jie sliced the pork thin while it was still frozen.  She cut each green bean on a diagonal. She is very precise in her choppping.

Chinese green beans

This dish used a fair amount of oil.

Chinese pork cooking

After she removed the pork, she began building flavor by sauteeing star anise and red peppercorns in the oil. She brought spices from Beijing. Then she added the green beans and stirred them with the flavored oil, and cooked them. Then she added the pork back.

Chinese green bean & pork

She poured in a little soy sauce, added a little salt and sugar. She tossed it all around. Then she added cooked spaghetti (that’s what she found in the pantry).  She added some of the spaghetti cooking water, and poured a raw, scrambled egg over the pasta. She put the lid on the pan and to cook the egg cook and warm the pasta.

Chinese spagetti lid

After it had cooked a few minutes, she added the raw garlic.

Chinese spagetti cooked

Chinese spagetti

For Jei’s recipe for asparagus and bacon is here. Last night I made this dish with red bell peppers and asparagus:

Best Cake Ever


My mother-in-law was visiting this week and she made our favorite German Apple Cake. It’s our current candidate for best cake ever. I’ve written about it before, here (link to recipe):

This time, I watched her do it.

apple cake dough

Renate has an interesting method with the dough, something I’d never seen before.  She forms the dough into a log, refrigerates it, and then cuts it into pieces and presses it into a springform plan. dough method

Then she puts the pan in the fridge, while she prepares the apples and filling.  Before she puts the apples and filling into the pie shell, she sprinkles bread crumbs over the bottom. It absorbs the juices and gives a cookie-like consistency to the baked crust.

dough pressed

Then she made the filling. It had cream and sour cream, and a half cup of sugar.

apple cake creamShe scored the apples, placed them in the bread crumb-lined pastry pan, poured the filling over it, and baked it at 375 degrees. apple scoring

apple prebake

After baking, she brushed apricot jam over the top. The cake was returned to the refriderator. Around 3:30 that afternoon, she said, “Oh, shall we have cake and coffee?” And she served it up.


It was very good. It’s the best cake ever.

apple eaten


Orbit Gallery back in orbit


A wall from the 2012 Orbit Art Gallery, in a Court Street storefront. The uncurated, open-minded art displays returns this year, at the corner of Chapel and Howe streets.

Ideat Village ended in 2012, but not really. Over the years, the homegrown New Haven alt-culture explosion developed several popular components which have outlasted the full-blown multifarious festival itself. There was the ingenious activity, for instance, where local musicians were teamed up in ad hoc bands that competed against each other to write songs and play live; that exercise has persisted annually at Café Nine.

Now the Orbit Art Gallery is back. Continue reading

Tiananmen Plus 25

tank man 2

June 4, 1989. Chinese troops massacred several hundred, if not thousands, of peaceful, unarmed pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.  Somehow that same government is still in power, still lying and covering up. At least for now, Chinese government officials can scrub the Internet tubes of all mention of the massacre of its own citizens, but the rest of the world will always have this photograph.

Thank you, Tank Man, whoever and wherever you are.

How to Cook Dandelion Greens



We’re often advised to pick dandelions before they have bloomed because they are less bitter. But you can still eat them after they have bloomed, when the leaves are longer and more bitter. Rather than use them in a salad, I cook these leaves. First, wash them in a big bowl of water (I change the water three times — and rather than pour the water down the drain, I water my potted plants with it).

Then I blanch the leaves in boiling water to remove the bitterness. Drain the leaves and discard the water. Some people saute the leaves in garlic and oil, but the method I prefer is one I learned from a Greek woman. The leaves come out much more tender than with the sauteed method, which can result in stringy leaves. Simmer the leaves in enough salted water to cover them, with a chopped clove of garlic and some olive oil. Simmer until the leaves are tender.  And don’t throw out the simmer water. It is delicious and has the energizing effect of an elixir.


When I interviewed Lidia Bastianich 10 years ago, we talked about dandelion greens and she told me about an Italian dish that pairs cooked greens with pureed fava beans. I later found the recipe in Giuliano Bugialli’s “Foods of Italy” and made it. The favas are dry, and when you soak them it’s easy to separate the skins from the beans. (Much easier than getting the skin off fresh favas!)  And the greens are cooked in salted water with a chopped clove of garlic.

Bugialli says the dish comes from Puglia and is served in the rough earthenware bowls of the region. The dandlion greens and fava bean puree are eaten from the same bowl, with strong-flavored olive oil poured over it. And they are “eaten alternately, never mixed together,” with the hearty country bread of the region and pecorino cheese. It’s a surprisingly tasty, rustic dish.