The Dining Dish blog is Dara Bunjon's take on anything food, both national and in her hometown of Baltimore. Warning: this food blog can be harmful to your waistline.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Recently Discovered Unpublished Article by Chef Barbara Tropp

by Dara Fromm Bunjon

I’m not sure when I first heard of Chef Barbara Tropp. It was so long ago, and many meals have passed since then. Barbara was the chef/owner of China Moon Restaurant in San Francisco and a leading authority on Chinese food. Her interest in Chinese culture started in high school and led to doctoral studies at Princeton. Her passion took her to Taiwan for two years where her two host families guided her on a Chinese culinary path.

Her first cookbook, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking Techniques and Recipes, came out in 1982. James Beard said, “Barbara Tropp’s volume on Chinese cooking is a unique achievement. Her intelligent and thorough explanations are detailed and truly great. The choice of recipes is exciting. This is a magnum opus for any cooking addict.” More praise appears on the book cover from Maida Heatter and Craig Claiborne.

Entertaining with China Moon

Her China Moon Cookbook is amazing, detailed and always on the money. Her recipes were complex and one made a commitment to make her recipes. I have two distinct memories of entertaining with Chef Tropp’s recipes. The first is the China Moon Infusion Chicken Broth, starting with chicken stock and then making the same recipe with the stock instead of water, and the final step, cooking the stock a third time with whole bulbs of garlic and lemongrass. The average consumer would know that it tasted good but I served this to a food scientist who immediately recognized the depth and layering of flavors.

In the mid ‘90s, I had invited Chef Gino Troia and his wife for dinner, but knew what I served could not be Italian. I decided on what I knew would be wonderful: Clear-Steamed Salmon with Ginger-Black Bean Vinaigrette from the China Moon Cookbook.

She Empowered Many

Chef Tropp broke ground not only in combining California and Chinese cuisines, but also as a leader for women chefs and restaurateurs. It was Barbara along with others like Joyce Goldstein and Lydia Bastianich who spearheaded a now-thriving organization which promotes and lends guidance to women in the restaurant industry: Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR). Little did I know when cooking her recipes that I would benefit from her efforts and be part of the organization she helped create.

A Great Loss

Sadly, in late 2001, Barbara died of ovarian cancer at age 53. Her husband, Bart Rhoades, continues to support WCR and comes to their annual conference every year to present the Barbara Tropp Award. Recently, Bart announced he had just discovered an unfinished, unpublished article of Barbara’s and agreed to mail it to me. I hope you enjoy this new found glimpse of the late, great Chef Tropp. I leave it in the unedited state it was sent to me. I hope you relish this rare opportunity to share once more in Barbara’s passion.

By Barbara Tropp Bon Appetit - Chicken

It is difficult not to like chicken! Or at least I would think so – I, who grew up with a chicken farm down the road (across the way from the corn fields that supplied the vegetable course for our chicken dinners), and who came of culinary age in Taiwan, where the chicken is enchantingly and naturally sweet, and so prized a creature that old men (such as the one I lived with) did verbal battle in the morning marketplaces over the merits of this plump bird or that svelte one. No indeed, chicken on my tongue and to my way of thinking is one of the great foods!

Especially in the warm summer months, chicken is a regular on my Chinese-inclined table. I make an extra effort to plan dinners simply, so that I have time to shop for the freshest possible bird. Shopping as I do in a Chinatown poultry market, I know the chicken is fresh-killed that morning and at its natural best, but if I am traveling and hungry for chicken I look for the same signs of freshness in the everyday supermarket birds – a smooth, glossy skin stretched over a plump breast, a discernable moistness, and no sign of excess juices afloat in the bag or storage tray. And then I plan my meal to show off my prize. A stir-fry of “Spicy Tangerine Chicken” served with a crisp green salad, slices of hot garlic bread and a glass of cool wine, or skewers of “Grilled Chinese Chicken Wings” bedded on seasoned rice and washed down with fresh lemonade is my own personal summer style. I avoid Chinese banquets like the plague, and turn to a simple East-West menu with the same happy pleasure that I would greet a shady tree.

Thinking in terms of cooking pleasure, if you are new to cooking a whole chicken and are intimidated by recipes such as “Chinese Curried Chicken”, “Steamed Chicken with Sweet Sausage and Scallion Oil” and “Orange and Tea Smoked Chicken” that call for you to chop up an entire bird, take heart! It is actually a very easy business. The main trick is to have in hand a sturdy, thick-bladed cleaver that will not knick when it hits the bone, and, if you wish an additional friendly tool, a poultry shear. Then, it’s a matter only of method. I first remove the wings and legs by cutting neatly around the joint, bending the wing or leg back to snap the bone free of the socket, and making the extra cut or two needed to free the joint. If the legs are big, I chop them Chinese-style into thirds across the bone (some good-spirited, hearty whacks do the job), and split the wings in two by cutting through the central joint. Next, I cut the body of the chicken into two by cutting first through the breast bone and then along one side of the backbone. The last step is to cut along the rib cage to divide each half in half again, and then to chop each fourth across the bone into rectangular pieces that make a good-sized morsel then claimed by a fork or chopstick. This act of chopping takes more time to describe than to execute, so don’t hesitate to give it a try.

Similarly, if you are new to cooking Chinese-style and fear that your precious summer hours will be wasted slaving over a chopping block and hot wok, put your fears aside. Recipes such as “Steamed Chicken Dumplings”, “Sourdough Chicken Toasts’ and “Rice Crumb Chicken” – pretty appetizers, the trio – are simple enough for even a novice cook. “Stir-Fried Hoisin Chicken with Hazelnuts”, while involving a marinating step and the classic attention to chopping vegetables and aromatics, may be prepared a full day in advance, leaving the final 3-minute cooking to the leisurely moments just before dinner. And “Chinese Chicken Noodle Soup with Toasted Almonds” and “Cold and Crunch Chicken Salad with Two Sauces” are do-ahead dishes as well, with the additional appeal of the familiar.

Here, then are some lively alternatives to the usual summer chicken. Approach them with confidence and enjoy them with a cold beer and a refreshing salad. It’s summertime and the Chinese Cookin’ is easy.

Rice Crumb Chicken

Soft slices of chicken breast are coated with seasoned rice and steamed, making this a very simple appetizer or light main course.

4-6 hors d’oeuvre servings or 2 entrée servings

½ pound boned and skinned fresh chicken breast
½ teaspoon finely minced garlic
½ teaspoon Chinese chili sauce (optional)
2 teaspoons finely minced scallion, white and light greet parts only
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon raw white rice
½ teaspoon “Roasted Szechwan Pepper-Salt”
additional pepper-salt for dipping - or – “Hakka Garlic Sauce”

Lightly pound fillets and breast pieces with the broad side of a cleaver until 3/8-inch thick, then cut crosswise into pieces about 2 inches long and 1 inch wide. In a small bowl, toss the chicken, garlic, chili sauce, scallion, wine, soy sauce and sesame oil, stirring well with your hand to coat and separate the slices. Seal airtight and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour or overnight in the refrigerator.

In a dry skillet, toast the rice and pepper-salt over moderate heat stirring until the grains turn golden, about 5 minutes. Remove the hot mixture to a food processor fitted with the steel knife and grind to a nubbly consistency about half the size of a peppercorn. Combine the rice mixture with the chicken, tossing to distribute the crumbs.

Arrange the slices in a single layer on a heatproof plate at least 1-inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. (Do not worry if the crumbs do not entirely cover the chicken.) Steam over medium-high heat 15-20 minutes until rice is tender.

Serve with an accompanying dip dish of “Roasted Szechwan Pepper-Salt” or “Hakka Garlic Sauce”, or a simple mixture of 1 part soy sauce and 1 part unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar with a dash of sesame oil or hot chili oil.

Roasted Szechwan Pepper-Salt

A wonderful, all-around seasoning. Store in an airtight jar.

Makes ½ cup.

¼ cup Szechwan peppercorns
½ cup old-fashioned kosher salt

Toast peppercorns and salt in a dry skillet over moderately low heat, stirring, until salt turns off-white. Peppercorns will smoke; lower heat if needed to prevent scorching. Remove hot mixture to work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife and process for a full minute to obtain a coarse powder. Alternatively, pound in a mortar with a pestle. Sieve to remove peppercorn husks.

Hakka Garlic Sauce

A zippy sweet garlic sauce perfect with chicken.

Makes ¼ cup.

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon very finely minced garlic
2 tablespoons unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine the garlic, vinegar and sugar in a small dish, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Set aside 15 minutes to allow flavors to develop, and stir before serving.

© Bunjon


Anonymous said...

I'm an enormous fan of Barbara Tropp's. She wrote with an amazingly vivid voice and her personality jumps right off the pages of the China Moon Cookbook. She died at far too young an age and I'm sorry I never had a chance to eat at her restaurant or take a cooking class with her.

Anonymous said...

Barbara Tropp has been my inspiration for years. I first met her in Aspen where I took a class from her. I went back for several years and hers was always the first class I chose.
I now teach cooking classes out of my home and share the knowlege and, hopefully, the inspiration she gave me.

Sally said...

I just found this post today, through a search.

I am so glad I found it, I am a huge fan of Barbara Tropp, read China Moon and her huge compilation on Chinese cooking from first to last page, more than once...

I was devastated when she died, and being able to see this little pearl of text and recipe she wrote was absolutely wonderful...

Thank you!


Mary B said...

In 1985 on a whim I attended a Chinese cooking class with chef Barbara Tropp, held in a lovely Sonoma Valley private home outside of Healdsburg, where I lived at the time. All fifteen of us in the class were instantly besotted with this tiny energetic woman so if love with her craft. Soon after that I went on her guided tour of Chinatown, complete with dim sum feast specially chosen by Barbara herself. I recorded her informative patter--although some of it was in Mandarin--on micro tapes, which somehow became misplaced through my many moves since then. I've been a writer ever since that time and now, at 82, as I am trying to organize my considerable output, I find my notes on Barbara's class and tour. I even was able to interview her. Then I left town and later so sorry to learn she had died and so young. I've been searching the internet to see if anyone else has published a Barbara Tropp class or San Francisco Chinatown tour and am surprised to have a hard time finding anything, even as the research librarian I was before becoming a writer. Can anyone help? I have a website: Thanks!


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