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March Cookbooks by Fuchsia DUNLOP (Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese) Post mortem discussion

We'd discussed having a thread about this month's cookbooks after the month was up, so that folks could talk about what they liked and didn't like, give tips for hard-to-find ingredients, etc.

I think the March COTM were extremely successful in terms of the large number of participants, the great recipes, the fascinating discussions of both recipes and techniques and the descriptions of searches for ingredients.

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  1. I really enjoyed cooking from LOP. As C kept saying, this was his favorite month ever. After hunting down the ingredients, the recipes used most of them, so I never felt that I was buying a product for a single recipe. And, I found many that I've already repeated (stir fried cabbage, ma po do fu, dry fried chicken, corn and green peppers).

    I do think there is an excess amount of oil in each recipe. I've cut back with no lack of taste. I wish I had made the salted chilis and may do so next time I see some nice red chilis.

    I think part of the success of this month's COTM is the nature of chinese food. It's something where you can sub in and out ingredients due to your personal needs. The recipes are one person's interpretations and access of these dishes and are a guide to the dish. What doesn't change is the cooking technique. But, even these can be adapted. I don't cook with a wok and my dishes still came out fine. However, her directions could be a little more clear and I didn't like how I had to jump to a couple of different points in the book to find out what she really meant (truthfully, I often didn't and fudged it, using my own knowledge of chinese food and cooking).

    Lastly, I'm curious about people who cooked from both books. I mostly used LOP since I owned it and didn't get RCC until last week. RCC never grabbed me, but reading the posts, I do have a mild curiousity towards it. However, when I flip through the book, I lose interest again. Also, RCC seemed to use a lot more oil and had more deep frying than LOP. Which book did you like better and why?

    I know I'll continue cooking from LOP especially since there are more recipes that I want to try.

    1. I had both books out of the library more or less simultaneously. I made three dishes from “Revolutionary Chinese Cooking” (Fragrant-and-Hot Tiger Prawns, Pock-Marked Woman’s Bean Curd, and Stir-Fried Bitter Melon with Chinese Chives; salted chiles are still doing their thing) and ten dishes from “Land of Plenty” (Steamed Pork-and-Pumpkin Dumplings, Gong Bao Chicken with Peanuts, Sweet-and-Sour Crispy Fish, Twice-Cooked Pork, Stir-Fried Cabbage, Dry-Fried Green Beans, Traditional Dan Dan Noodles, Xie Laoban’s Dan Dan Noodles, Pock-Marked Mother Chen’s Bean Curd, and Hot-and-Numbing Crispy Shrimp).

      Many years ago I went through a phase where I was doing a lot of Chinese cooking. I have more than a half dozen Chinese cookbooks on my shelves, a couple of which were given to me by my former sister-in-law who is Chinese. The Dunlop books reminded me (1) how much better home cooking is than Chinese take-out, (2) how easy most of these dishes are to prepare once the ingredients are on hand, (3) how a small amount of beef and pork can be very satisfying, and (4) how really good the leftovers can be. I had no intention of buying either book, but the more I read and cooked from LOP the more I decided I had to own it. Not only did it have at least three dishes that I know I’ll make over and over again, but also the basic info on ingredients, tools, and techniques is more informative and complete. And in general, there were far more recipes I’d still like to try in LOP than there are in RCC. I’ve typed out nine recipes from RCC, not including the recipe for salted chiles, but would have had to type out nearly double that number if I hadn’t broken down and bought LOP.

      The dishes I’ll definitely be making again: Fragrant-and-Hot Tiger Prawns, Pock-Marked Woman’s Bean Curd, Gong Bao Chicken, Dry-Fried Green Beans, and Traditional Dan Dan Noodles.

      What I didn’t like about the books: Recipe instructions aren’t always as clear as they might be. The indexes border on shameful, RCC more so than LOP. I would have liked more suggestions on menu planning and what to serve with what.

      What I learned from these books: Her technique of preseasoning the wok before you start cooking is brilliant and allows you to cut down considerably on the amount of oil needed to cook a dish. Less oil is fine, especially if your wok is well seasoned. Chinkiang vinegar is my seasoning discovery of the year; I love that stuff and had never heard of it before. I *can* make dumplings; I just need to practice. I don’t like bitter melon.

      1. I'm still waiting on the Revolution to arrive at the library, so I expect to be returning to this COM in the future. It was fantastic getting a few new ingredients - fermented black beans in particular - into my rotation. I love Chinese food, but don't love Chinese takeout, so now I'm really set for home mapo tofu making, and a different twist on veg ETC.
        One day I'm even going to deal with a whole fish on my tiny stovetop.

        There's still loads of things I'd like to try from these books (and no doubt whatever the new one Madame Dunlop is working on) since I wasn't willing to
        a. cook from recipes every night
        b. cook Chinese every night

        Thanks a million everyone for all the interesting support and discussion.

        Is Yimster still around on the SF board? He's posted some really great Chinese HomeCooking in the past, of a totally different style/region previously. Just fyi for people who have caught the bug.
        : )

        5 Replies
        1. re: pitu

          Not only is yimster still around, he's apparently been following our progress this month: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/50153...

          ~TDQ

          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            Yes, I still around. My son still get a kick out of naming you on the boards.

            As I get older and wiser, I now know that the more you learn about something how much more there is to learn. So I have not posted as many recipes to show my lack of knowledge.

            But I still enjoy reading the posts. But I have to be careful since oakjoan is out there ready to challage me to a throwdown.

            For pitu, I most cook Cantonese food but have venture out into other areas of China and outside to the rest of the world.

            Maybe someday soon I will post again when my writing skills have improved.

            1. re: yimster

              Yimster! Great to see you here in this thread. And, yes, I am indebted to your son for my screen-name... I posted that story in a thread on site talk. I'll see if I can provide a link... Found it! http://www.chowhound.com/topics/47413...

              I would certainly love read to any recipes and experiences you would like to post about. I had a lot of fun with the Dunlop books, but oh my goodness I have so much to learn.

              P.S. are you familiar with the Dunlop books at all? I would be curious to hear your thoughts...

              ~TDQ

              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                Yes, I have all her books. They are enjoyable reading. She has a lot of insights and I find her ideas helpful.

                Recipes maybe later.

                I will show my son this post I know he will get a big kick out of it.

                1. re: yimster

                  Yeah!
                  I love the Dunlop COM even more now that it has drawn out his excellency yimster!
                  I miss you on the homecooking board!

                  p.s. my library has just notified me that RCC is ready...
                  as with Sunday Suppers, I hope people will continue to post on Dunlop

        2. I posted my overall comments "from a core plan perspective" in my "weight watchers core plan" cookbooks and recipes thread. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/47339... (it's a very long thread; scroll to the bottom.)

          I echo many of the sentiments expressed by foiks who've commented already. I occasionally found the recipes confusing ("stir fry until it smells wonderful"). Also, I think she could have reminded you to rinse certain ingredients in the recipe itself, instead of just assuming you'll remember having read to rinse it in the pantry section. She could have just said, "pickled vegetable, rinsed" in the ingredient listing. With some of the chopping techniques it might have been helpful if she'd provided a page number referring back to the section where she tells you how to "sliver" your meat, for instance. We cooked from these books very intensively for an entire month, but think how even more impossible it's going to be to remember how to sliver your meat or that you should rinse your pickled vegetable if you just pick this cookbook every month or so, but haven't made great notes...

          Sometime the pantry sections of one books was better than the other, though I can't say I paid enough attention to tell if one was most consistently better. I noticed a few occasions where one book would mention that an ingredient needed to be rinsed before use, for instance, whereas the other book didn't. I assume that RC (being the newer book) is overall better than LOP in the pantry department because she learned from experience, but I'm just speculating there.

          I can't really comment on the quantity of oil in the recipes because I was using way less oil than the recipes called for. More oil than I was using would be easier in many cases.

          I do now own both of these books (which started out as library books) because of my little accident with my water bottle, but, I probably would have bought them anyway. I don't have a lot of experience cooking Chinese food of any kind, but, with both of these cookbooks, I managed to cook food that is better than the food I've had in some Chinese restaurants (not the best restaurants, of course). And now that I have a perspective on how much oil the restaurants must actually be using, I know I'll want to cook at home even more to control the quantities of oil. I think these cookbooks will help me do that reasonably well.

          I also very much enjoyed Dunlop's background stories introducing each dish. Some were fascinating.

          Remember to rinse the salted black beans and preserved vegetables before you cook with them. And don't forget to read through the pantry section regarding any unfamiliar ingredients, as well as the "blurb" wherein she introduces the recipes because sometimes she put specific cooking or serving suggestions in the blurb.

          Thank you, everyone, for a great month and to oakjoan for organizing.

          ~TDQ

          1. This was my first COTM, so I have little to compare the experience to, but I have cooked Asian food for years, with some Chinese recipes. Much of what I read and did was probably colored by that previous knowledge. Her ingredients section was helpful, but I was not able to figure out "suan cai". In RCC it is what is substituted out by Tianjin preserved vegetable, but in LOP there is also a "suan cai", but it is not listed as being substituted out by Tianjin. It is like "suan cai" is two separate things in each book. Perhaps this is a regional language thing between the two provinces, but I would have liked to see this difference explained to me.

            The index, a feature I use heavily in cookbooks, was inadequate in both books. I found her style of not always telling you what to do with ingredients in the ingredient list a little frustrating for my style of cooking. She will give "scallions, green part only" in the list, but not tell you until you read through the directions that she wants them thinly sliced. This is not the case in all the recipes. Sometimes she will tell you in the list. It is easily remedied by writing in the book (if you own the book), though.

            I enjoyed and was more inclined to read the intros to each recipe in LOP than in RCC. The motif of displaying a picture of Chairman Mao on many of the pages was striking in RCC. I found the recipes to be delicious and well worth trying and plenty worth repeating in both books. Some books with Chinese recipes have a feel of just changing out the meat and the vegetables, with little variation in the saucing or method. These books did not feel this way to me. Also, I enjoyed her section on types of flavorings, like fish fragrant, which was in LOP.

            Cooking this much Chinese in a month reminded me of how intensive it can be in the knife work and assembling little dishes of sauce beforehand. That's why I liked a couple of choices she offered where the flavor was more in the ingredient itself, and I found I could buy the ingredient pre-chopped and pre-measured, like with LOP Pork Slivers with Preserved Mustard Tuber. It also reminded me of how easy it is to change an ingredient choice to one you prefer in Chinese cooking. I used my cast iron more than my wok (strange, I know, since I actually do have a nice wok) and I discovered as I expected to that it works well, but faster, and you must turn the ingredients out on a dime. I have a very weak stove, and that is why I was trying this. On a strong stove, the wok is nice, because you can push the ingredients up the side and it is much lighter to handle. I was trying to use momentum to help me stir-fry by having the cast iron hold the heat when the ingredients are dropped in.

            I agree with many comments of the other posters, like less oil can be used in some of the dishes. I've enjoyed reading all of the posts from the other participants.