Monday, July 27, 2015

White on rice. Or something.

You can pretty much tell where you are in China by the starch you are eating. Generally speaking, wheat is served in the cold, dry areas to the north and west, while the humid south and east are the places where rice grows well. Other grains and tubers round out the cuisines, of course, but all in all, wheat and rice form the bases for every meal. In fact, starches are such fundamental parts of all these food traditions that they are called the “main food,” or zhǔshí 主食, in Chinese.
Pour water into the rinsed rice

Everywhere outside of North and West China relies on rice in some form, though, for the daily meal, and most folks just steam up a couple cups while they are cooking dinner. It’s an easy and pretty much foolproof way to round out your meal.

If you are old school, you can try steaming rice in bamboo steamer baskets. The main thing to remember is that the rice has to be soaked before steaming. Some people advise that you soak it for 8 hours or overnight, but it really depends upon the type of rice and how fresh it is. I tend to soak white rice for around 3 hours and then use the fingernail test to know when it’s ready to be cooked. Check out the directions for Fermented Rice if you want detailed directions on making steamed rice the old-fashioned way.

Bring to a full boil

Nowadays, though, almost every Chinese person I knows has an automatic rice steamer that gets used on a daily basis. When I lived in Taiwan years ago, the go-to brand was Tatung, and it was a simple, hard to break cooker that could also be used to steam fish or whatever else was on the menu. Today’s rice cookers tend to be more dedicated to cooking nothing other than rice, and in my opinion the Japanese have this subject nailed. The best one on the market right now is the Zojirushi “Neuro Fuzzy” rice cooker, which also has to win some sort of prize for the strangest name. These are fully automatic, so if you cook a lot of rice, this is something to seriously consider. Just follow the directions that come with the steamer.

However, I did not have an electric rice steamer even after almost three decades of living with a Chinese guy simply because I had always worked in tiny kitchens with limited counter space. Be that as it may, I served rice many times a week by simply cooking it on the stove. When done right, it’s foolproof.
Set your timer

Although this is not technically steamed rice, what you end up is virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. Brown rice cooks up perfectly this way, too. Lots of rice producers will have directions printed on the package, and that is the perfect place to start because each brand and variety of rice definitely is different. Don’t add any salt or oil when you are cooking the rice for a Chinese meal, even if the package tells you to, as this is just not done in East Asia. However, you can always add oil and seasonings after the rice is cooked, as with fried rice or Taiwanese Sticky Rice.

Another thing that I've come to love is the array of different rices on display in the bulk section of many supermarkets nowadays. This allows me to buy just a pound or two of whatever looks delicious to me that day, and then I can look forward to trying something new the next time around. If you don't plan to use your rice up within a week or so, consider storing it in the refrigerator to prevent it from getting buggy.

Simple ingredients & recipe

Shown in these pictures is organic jasmine rice, which has a deep perfume that I adore. What I like to do at the store is smell each bin, as my nose unerringly informs me as to what is really fresh. Other rices are just as delicious, of course, and I could not live without plain white rice, brown basmati, sticky Thai black, or inky forbidden rice. They all taste and look and feel so different from each other that sometimes it's hard to believe they're actually related.

One thing you should note is that the measuring cup for a rice cooker holds about ¾ cup - not a full cup - so adjust your measurements accordingly.

This is the recipe I have used since forever:

Stovetop rice
Shǔizhǔ báifàn 水煮白飯
Makes about 3 cups

1 cup plain white raw short-grain rice
1½ cups water

1. Rinse the rice in a sieve until the water runs clear. Dump the rice into a 3- or 4-cup saucepan, preferably with a heavy bottom and a clear lid. Pour in the water and swirl the rice around in it to loosen up any clumps.

Rice with the variation below
2. Bring the water to a full boil and then turn the heat down to low. Cover the pan and let the rice slowly cook for 17 to 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the rice sit covered for another 10 minutes. Fluff the rice up with chopsticks or a fork and serve.

For brown rice, use 2 cups water and cook the rice for 45 minutes, or follow the package directions.

     *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   * 

One of the really nice things about simple foods like rice is that they can be dressed up with pretty much zero effort. The following is one example. I actually got the idea for this from Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, a book I cannot recommend enough. Few people write as poetically about food as Mr. Slater, and I get hungry just reading one of his beautifully shaped recipes, which seem to call upon all of the senses, as well as memories, the weather, and how he's feeling just at that moment. Sheer bliss is eating something good while reading his books. 
The star attraction

Cilantro rice
Yuánsuī fàn 芫荽飯
Makes about 3 cups

Cook the rice as directed above, and just before serving, fold in:

1 cup (or so) coarsely chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons green onion mingyou
A couple grinds of black pepper

This rice doesn't keep long because cilantro (aka coriander, aka Chinese parsley) hates to be anything other than fresh, uncooked, and sprightly. So, make only as much of this rice as you are planning to eat in one sitting. It's especially delicious with something like a broiled or grilled bit of fish. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bitter melons & golden sand

The last time we were in Shanghai a couple of years ago, it seemed like every cook in the city was terribly excited about a “golden sand” version of, well, just about everything possible. We got a bit exhausted from having this way too often, but now that some time has passed, my love for this lovely and delicious sauce has been rekindled. (BTW, the illustration on the left is from my upcoming book with McSweeney's and Ten Speed Press: ALL UNDER HEAVEN.)

Golden sand is nothing less than the yolks of Brined Eggs that are mashed and then stir-fried into a buttery sauce. Some of the things we had with the golden sand were less than stellar – combined with shellfish, for example, it’s an overkill of fatty, salty flavors (sort of like crab with drawn butter, at least to my taste) – but when it’s used as a visual and textural and flavorful contrast to the main ingredient, the result can be inspired.

Young bitter melons
My favorite rendition was when it was matched up with bitter melons. Everything was exactly right in this combination: the beautiful jade color of the vegetable against the amber crumbles of salted egg yolk, the crunchy melon sliding on the creamy sauce, and the slightly bitter and yet slightly sweet flavors mingling with the salty and, yes, really buttery aromas from the golden sand made this a winning trifecta.

The bitter melons are cut into thin batons, blanched, quickly cooled down, and only then tossed in the sauce. This serves to leach out most of the bitterness and essentially cook the melon very rapidly, which preserves its exquisite color and crispness.

Bitter melons in golden sand 
Jīnshā kŭguā 金沙苦瓜 
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

2 medium bitter melons
Boiling water
6 yolks from Brined Eggs, or store-bought
2 cloves garlic, peeled and trimmed
1 green onion, trimmed
¼ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
2 to 3 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt

1. Wash and dry the bitter melons and trim off both ends, as well as any damaged areas. Cut the melons lengthwise in half and scoop out both the seeds and any pith. Cut the melon halves crosswise into 2-inch or so lengths, and then slice these pieces lengthwise into thin (¼ inch) strips.
Boiling up the "golden sand"

2. Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan and blanch the bitter melons for less than 1 minute, or until they turn bright green and taste barely cooked. Rinse the bitter melons with cool tap water in a colander set in the sink, and then drain thoroughly.

3. Use a fork to mash the yolks. Finely chop the garlic and green onion.

4. Pour the oil into a wok and heat it over medium-high until it starts shimmer. Add the mashed egg yolks, garlic, and onion, and stir-fry them until the sauce foams up; add the sugar and salt. Toss in the well-drained bitter melon and mix it quickly to heat the vegetables through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pour the melons onto a serving plate and scrape all of the sauce out of the wok on top of them. Serve while still very hot.
If jade were a vegetable


Bitter melons aren’t really melons... they’re a type of squash. The problem lies in the translation, because the name in Chinese for both melons and squash is guā 瓜.

You can get a good sense of how weird these names are when you consider that a watermelon is called a “western gua” (xīguā 西瓜), and a pumpkin is referred to as a “southern gua” (nánguā 南瓜). Why? Beats me. One is sweet, the other not so much. Watermelons may have traveled from Central Asia into China, which definitely is to the west, but the pumpkin originates in the Americas, which is nowhere south of China. 

I give up.

A general rule is, the lighter the green of the bitter melon, the less bitter it is. For this dish, a pale green is recommended, unless you enjoy more astringent flavors.

Bitter melons are in season from the warm days of summer up until the first frosts of fall. Select ones that are heavy for their size, and try to avoid any with bruises, as these vegetables spoil easily.

Store the melons in the fridge, preferably with a piece of paper towel around them to soak up any moisture, since they are prone to rot. Use them up within a day or two, if at all possible.

This recipe is for brined chicken eggs. If you are using duck or goose yolks, be sure and adjust the amount accordingly. Also, these latter two kinds of eggs tend to have a gamy or fishy flavor. To combat this, cut each yolk in half, sprinkle them with a bit of white liquor or rice wine, and steam them for about 5 minutes. Cool the yolks before mashing.

Illustration from the forthcoming All Under Heaven (McSweeney's + Ten Speed Press, 2016)
Copyright (c) 2015, Carolyn Phillips
All Rights Reserved - Do Not Reproduce

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cookbook news and some delicious awards

Color me excited: Food52 has named my Zhajiang Noodle recipe a Wildcard Contest Winner and a Community Pick! 

This magazine also recently published my guide to Chinese cooking equipment. Coming up on the same site will be my guide to essential Chinese ingredients. Stay tuned... 

The other great news is that McSweeney's is going to publish my upcoming cookbook -- ALL UNDER HEAVEN: RECIPES FROM THE 35 CUISINES OF CHINA -- in tandem with Ten Speed Press. 

What's so great about this is that Ten Speed is such a large and well-respected publishing house that ALL UNDER HEAVEN will receive much better marketing that could have ever been possible before. The down side is that its publication date has been pushed back to April 2016, but that gives Ten Speed time to include AUH in its spring catalog. So, my sincere apologies for this short setback. Do know that it's already to go and I'm already working on my next book, THE DIM SUM FIELD GUIDE, which will also be published by Ten Speed.

McSweeney's has finished the layout, and I have to say that it looks fantastic:
They've managed to include my illustrations on just about every page, and when you consider that this book is going to weigh in at over 500 pages, that's pretty exciting.

The lovely and talented Ken Hom has written the most beautiful foreword, and I can't thank the Godfather of Chinese Cuisine enough for his support and mentorship. 

Stay tuned for more news as it becomes available. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Simply amazing homemade seasoned salted eggs

Brined eggs, or "salted eggs" (xiandan) as they are known in Chinese, are a staple throughout much of China, as this was a great way to preserve eggs in the days before refrigeration. But it's not only preservation that has made them popular: they can taste truly wonderful.

China's spotty record with monitoring its food supply means that it's not too wise to buy many of the more problematic Chinese products (including eggs), and although Taiwan's have so far not caused any problems, it's still impossible to find organic brined eggs or even relatively fresh ones. The solution? Make them yourself!

We adore brined eggs in our family, and we use them not only as a side dish for congee, but in other favorite dishes, as well. A steamed Taiwanese ground pork patty with pickles just isn't the same without some salty yolks studding the top, and since any extras are subject to first-come-first-serve, these dinners end up being wolfed down in record time so that dibs can be placed before anybody else gets a chance.

Barely cooked brined egg
Salty egg yolks are prized inside of baked Chinese pastries like mooncakes, where their sandy, savory, and even buttery flavors contrast perfectly with the sweet red bean paste. They are the perfect golden prizes to snuggle inside of Hakka tamales, and they lend a mysteriously cheesy flavor to the stir-fries that are described as "golden sand" (see next post). 

We first encountered this last style of cooking when we visited Shanghai, and it was so popular that we were served it at almost every dinner. Now that the memories of golden sand overload have faded, we have come to enjoy it once more. 

Traditionally, brined eggs are made with duck eggs, the large shells turning an even lovelier shade of blue during their weeks in the salt water. But since duck eggs are relatively hard to find, I've substituted large organic and free-range hen eggs; the taste is very similar to the genuine item, except for the fact that duck eggs tend to be a bit oilier. 

One thing nice about making your own brined eggs is that you can use any variety of egg you like and also can flavor the egg whites, something I've never seen done by other Chinese cooks.

You'll find that no commercial eggs are ever seasoned with anything but salt. However, when they are homemade, they can have their egginess edged with herbs, wine, and aromatics. In the recipe below, I've layered my eggs with ginger, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies, Shaoxing rice wine, and lots of garlic. The resulting brined eggs have a remarkably well-rounded flavor that will make anyone a convert.

If you are planning to use these in a sweet, though, I'd suggest that you don't add any seasonings other than, maybe, warm spices like cinnamon and star anise, as otherwise they'd fight with your other flavors.
Those delicious golden orbs

Brined eggs are super easy and require only a few minutes of preparation. Then, the eggs just sit in a cool spot for a couple of weeks. How long they will take to become fully brined depends upon the size of the eggs and the heat of the room, but any egg that isn't quite ready can be easily incorporated into your morning scramble.

Homemade seasoned brined eggs
Xiándàn 鹹蛋 
All over China
Makes 1 dozen, easily multiplied

1½ cups sea salt
6½ cups boiling water
12 large fresh eggs, preferably organic and free range
1 inch fresh ginger, thinly sliced
2 whole star anise
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
3 dried chilies
3 whole garlic cloves, slightly smashed
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine

Easy & delicious
1. Clean a tall, 2-quart jar and its lid. Find a disposable plastic lid (like from restaurant takeout or a plastic yogurt container) that is about the same diameter as the jar; wash it carefully and drain.

2. In a large pitcher or bowl, dissolve the sea salt with the 6½ cups boiling water. Allow the water to cool down completely to room temperature before proceeding. (You don't want to cook the eggs at this point; they must be brined while they are raw.)

3. Gently lower the eggs one by one into the jar; toss out any that are cracked and use others egg, if you have extra. Add the ginger, anise, peppercorns, chilies, garlic cloves, and rice wine to the jar, and then fill it up with the salted water to about 1 inch from the top; toss out any extra salt water.

4. Squeeze the plastic lid into the jar so that it holds down the eggs and keeps them submerged in the brine. It's all right if the lid is at an angle, as the only thing that matters is that the eggs are under the water.

5. Cover the jar and place it in a cool place. Check one egg after about 3 weeks by cracking it into a bowl. The yolk should be hard and a dark orange, while the white will be clear and very salty. If the egg is cured enough, remove the rest of the eggs from the brine and store them in a closed container in the refrigerator until you want to use them; they are best within a couple of weeks. If they haven't cured completely, continue to brine the eggs, testing them every couple of days. 
A plastic lid holding things together

 6. Eggs that are not to be eaten within a couple of weeks should be hard boiled. To hard boil these eggs, just prick the round end of the shell with a pin or tack, place in a pan of cool water, and bring to a boil over medium high heat. (Doing it this way will reduce the chance of the shells cracking.) Simmer the eggs for about 7 minutes for room temperature eggs or 10 minutes if they're cold. Cool them down and refrigerate if you are not eating them right away.

7. You can keep the brine and use it again; just store it in the fridge. Or, make a new batch with different flavors. This brine is so cheap that you can afford to be wasteful here!