Monday, February 24, 2020

Pure comfort from the Northeast + Europe

 While the areas along the lower Yangtze are home to a vibrant Buddhist food culture that combines ingenuity with a kaleidoscope of fresh ingredients, China’s desert lands pose a challenge for those who prefer meatless meals. 

At least, that was our discovery when my husband and I, then very much dedicated vegetarians, traveled there in the fall of 2001. The problem really wasn’t the lack of vegetables — we ate well, that is for sure — but everyone else in the tour group (nay, the entire Northwest, it seemed) ate little else but meat, and so whenever a restaurant had to think up something to serve just the two of us, panic ensued.

The assumption by the waitstaff and the cooks was that we were undernourished because we were not consuming enough protein, and so we were given combinations of tomatoes with eggs at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For the first few days it was kind of funny, and soon it became a running joke with us, whether we would have tomatoes and eggs, or eggs and tomatoes, or tomato and egg soup, or egg and tomato over noodles, or some other variation on this increasingly monotonous theme. 

Full flavored even in winter
By the second week, I had had enough and insisted that I be able to order my own food. The tour guide assumed I was going to bankrupt them with wild demands, but I pointed out that vegetarian dishes were always the cheapest things on the menu. And so, once we were allowed to order our own meals, we ate great food while managing to completely avoid both tomatoes and eggs. 

It took me about four years before I could even face the idea of tomatoes and eggs again, but when I did, I fell in love all over once again. This dish is so good that it’s popular all over North China, as well as the Northwest. It's also turned into the sort of comfort food that I crave on a regular basis. Plus, it's so easy - and I usually have all the ingredients on hand - that it's turned into a go-to meal for any time of the day.

Not everyone gets such a seemingly pedestrian combination right, so I am going to impart a few secrets here that will turn this into something that is extraordinarily good: 

First, the tomatoes have to be deliciously ripe and the eggs must be fresh and free-range. However, you are not going to find good fresh tomatoes any time of the year except for late summer and early autumn. But the good news is, there is a great alternative: canned cherry tomatoes. 

The best ones are without exception from Europe. These come to you already peeled with few seeds surviving the processing, and that is definitely a happy side effect in my book. Plus, these tomatoes are canned without salt water and instead are bathed in a thick tomato sauce, which makes them even more tomatoey.

Second, you should season this with salt rather than soy sauce to keep the flavors sharp and the colors bright.

Really, this is what you want

Tomatoes and eggs
Xīhóngshì chǎo jīzĭ  西紅柿炒雞子
Serves 4 to 6

1 can (14.28 ounce | 400 g) Italian cherry tomatoes
5 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped, with the whites in one pile and the greens in another
½ to 1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. Drain the tomatoes, but reserve all of the juice. Place a wok over high heat, and when it is hot, swirl in 3 tablespoons of the oil and all of the salt. Fry the ginger and the whites of the onions until they are golden, and then add the tomatoes. Lower the heat to medium-high and fry them, shaking and turning them over every 30 seconds or so until the liquid has evaporated and the tomatoes start to caramelize. Sprinkle on the sugar at this point, toss it into the tomatoes, and when the tomatoes start to get a nice caramelization going, scrape them out onto a plate. 
Caramelize the tomatoes - pure yum!

2. Pour the reserved juice into the wok. Quickly boil this juice down over high heat to concentrate the flavors. When no more than a few tablespoons remain, scrape this concentrated sauce in to the plate with the tomatoes. Lightly rinse the wok.

3. Return the wok to medium-high heat and swirl in the rest of the oil. Stir the onion greens into the eggs and pour the eggs into the wok. Flip the eggs over as they solidify and brown until they have formed a barely firm omelet. Lightly chop the omelet up with your spatula and then toss in the caramelized tomatoes and their sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then serve hot.


You can find canned Italian cherry tomatoes in some supermarkets (try Italian delis, too), as well as online. They're definitely worth the effort.

Thanks to Greatest Tomatoes from Europe for the canned cherry tomatoes. Seriously, folks, I am in love with these.