Monday, October 15, 2018

Pork rib soup in a carved winter melon

Sometimes just a tiny bit of work can give you something really spectacular for the dinner table. Case in point: soup inside a carved winter melon.

It used to be that you could only buy enormous winter melons. But recently a smaller variety has been showing up with delicious regularity in Chinese markets, and they are the perfect size for home meals. 

They are also fantastic for another reason: since they haven’t been cut up, they remain fresh and delicious for a very long time.

I adore winter melon. It has an unusual, almost spicy aroma, and it is one of the most versatile vegetables in creation. Hot or cold, savory or (yes!) sweet, this is a true chameleon.

You’re probably thinking, ‘Sweet?’ Well, yes indeedy. Winter melon is transformed into candy, sweet drinks, and extenders for sticky fillings, such as pineapple, which might otherwise be too cloying without the moistness and comparative blandness that grated winter melon can supply.

Be that as it may, winter melon is mainly beloved for its role in soups, in braises, and as a blank canvas for things like this delectably refreshing appetizer. But the one incarnation that always delighted me the most was when it arrived on a banquet table, all carved up into fancy designs, and acting as both the bowl and the vegetable for a delicious soup.

Now that I can lay my hands on these cute little melons, I’ve been enjoying them even more, since dinnertime gets turned into a special occasion when this soup is the centerpiece.

Pork rib soup in a carved winter melon
Páigŭ dōngguā zhōng 排骨冬瓜盅
Serves 4

Pork and marinade:
Around 1 pound | 500 g pork riblets (half a side of ribs, the bones cut into 1 inch | 2 cm pieces)
¼ cup | 60 ml regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 cup | 250 ml peanut or vegetable oil

1 quart | 1 liter unsalted stock or water, divided
1 cup | 250 ml Shaoxing rice wine
2 inches | 5 cm fresh ginger, sliced
Rock sugar to taste
1 tablespoon homemade mushroom seasoning, or salt or soy sauce to taste
Ice cubes, as needed

1 small winter melon (about 3 pounds | 1.5 kg)

1. Cut between the bones to separate the riblets. Pat them dry and place them in a resealable bag or container. Toss them with the soy sauce and rice wine, and then marinate for at least a couple of hours and up to 5 days. Drain the riblets and pat dry.

2. Set a wok or frying pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Slide in half of the riblets and fry until golden. Remove the riblets and then repeat with the other half.

3. Bring the stock (or water) and rice wine to a full boil in a medium saucepan. Add the ginger and the fried ribs, bring the pan once more to a full boil, and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the ribs until very tender, adding more stock or water as needed to keep the ribs covered. Remove the pan from the heat and cool. Add ice cubes to the soup, and then skim off and discard the congealed fat and leftover ice cubes.

4. While the stock is simmering, carve the winter melon (see Tips below), cut off the top to make a lid, and scrape out the seeds and membrane. Set the winter melon in a heatproof bowl and set the melon lid in the steamer, too, but without covering the melon, so that the heat easily penetrates the inside of the melon. (If you are going to serve this at a fancy dinner, though, replace the lid on the melon, as this will help keep the shape of both parts.) Steam the winter melon until it is tender but still holds it shape, at least 1 hour. Cool the melon until it is relatively easy to handle, and then pour out any liquid in it.

5. Now, before you go any further, practice removing that bowl from the steamer. Remember that it will be hot and heavy when it comes time to remove it, so figure that in, as well. The bowl should have a good lip on it, so that you can use a strong canning lifter to get a grip on it. The other alternative is to set the bowl on a small heatproof plate. But whatever you use, make sure there are a couple of inches | centimeters all the way around the bowl and optional plate so that you can safely grab them without dropping them back into the pot. It's a big mess when that happens, and yes, I'm speaking from experience.

6. Bring the ribs and broth to a full boil. Put enough of the ribs in the cooked winter melon so that the lid can still be placed on top of the melon, and then add the broth almost to the top of the melon bowl. Cover the melon with its lid, and then steam it for around 15 minutes to completely heat through the melon. Serve hot. Add more hot broth and ribs as needed, and toward the end of the meal, scrape out the melon flesh and serve with more of the broth.

Tips on carving

Wash the winter melon and pat dry. Use a paring knife to sketch out your pattern.

To cut the pattern, use either a paring knife, specialty carving tools, or (my favorite) a channel knife as shown in the second photo, as this makes the carving especially easy to control.

Once you have the melon decorated to your satisfaction, use a zigzag pattern to cut off the lid (see photo on the right). 

The membrane will be connected to the lid and therefore secure the lid down onto the melon, so carefully pry the lid off as much as you can, and then slip your paring knife in there to slash off the membrane. The seeds and membrane are pretty easy to remove after that.

Set the winter melon in a heatproof bowl that fits easily into your steamer. 

Make sure that there is plenty of clearance around the melon so that the heat circulates well, and also so that you can lift out your bowl without too much trouble. A wide, deep pot with a trivet or even a pasta insert work well.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Chinese chili chez Huang

Whenever the husband gets into a funk, I find that a really easy way to snap him out of it is to feed him. Just about anything will do, but something homey from his childhood will actually make him bounce downstairs. Today’s recipe is one such remedy.

However, we’ve been together for an eternity by now, and so I’ve put my own stamp on his mom’s classics. Here, for example, I use good old Mexican pinto beans because I’m a California girl. And a smattering of ground chiles. And he loves it. And he loves it even more if I serve this with cornbread, which also was not ever on his mother’s To Do list.

Cross-cultural pollination at work. You’re welcome.

This is super easy to throw together if you soak the beans the night before. And you always want to soak your beans overnight because their texture is so much better that way.

In fact, if you are rather unused to cooking with dried beans, here are some suggestions for getting an incredible meal out of an ingredient that is usually pretty cheap, very nutritious, and mind-blowingly good:

Barely cooked pinto beans
First, get fresh beans. Yes, they are dried, but they can’t be old. Old beans never soften up completely, no matter how hard you try, and so end up with the wrong texture and never taste marvelous. So, buy your beans from a busy market and use them up quickly. Then, whenever you clean out your cupboards and run across some old beans, turn them into pie weights or give them to some kids to turn into an art project… anything but cook with

New-crop dried beans will turn soft and creamy when
treated with care, and their cooking time will also be very short. Pinto beans are particularly silky in this dish precisely because they are so fresh, were soaked overnight, and then briefly simmered with a spoonful of baking soda, which helps to cut down on the gassiness. At least, this works for me, and I’m not going to argue about it.

Second, boil them only until they are tender, but not yet soft, for they will need to retain enough character to put up with further cooking once they join the pork, onions, and broth.

Lots of garlic
And finally, don’t add salt until the very end, when they have already achieved the right degree of tenderness, because salt will toughen them up.

If you do these three things, you’ll find that beans are a delight and will end up cooking them a whole lot more often.

Chinese chili chez Huang
Huángjiā dùn dòuzi  黃家燉豆子
Northern Chinese with a twist
Serves 6

About 1 pound | 500 g new harvest dried beans, pinto recommended
Water, as needed
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 head garlic, each clove peeled and lightly smacked
About 1 pound | 500 g ground pork, best quality you can find
½ cup | 125 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
5 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 quart | 1 liter lightly salted broth or water
1 piece of rock sugar. about the size of a ping-pong ball | 30 g
1 tablespoon ground chiles of any kind, plus more to taste
Browning adds great flavor

1. Start this at least a day before you plan to
serve this. Pick over the beans, place in a large work bowl, cover with cool
tap water, and soak overnight.

2. The next day, drain the beans, place them in a large pan (at least 1 gallon | 4 liters in size), and cover with water. You want this large size because the beans will foam up as they come to a boil, and the high walls will help keep your stove from becoming an ungodly mess. Sprinkle in the baking soda, but do not add salt. Bring the pan to a full boil, lower it to a gentle simmer, and skim off the foam if it threatens to escape. Simmer the beans only until they are tender, around 10 minutes. Drain and rinse the beans in a colander.

3. Set a wok over medium heat and add the oil. Fry the onions gently for a few minutes before adding the whole garlic cloves. Cook these only until translucent, and then make a nest in the bottom of the wok. Break the pork into this nest and fry the pork until it has lost all pink color. Toss the onions and pork together and continue to fry and toss these until they turn golden. 
A sprinkle of chile powder

4. Pour in the rice wine, and after a few minutes add
the soy sauce, stock or water, rock sugar, and ground chiles. Bring this to a full boil, and then lower the heat and simmer these together for around 30 minutes. 

5. Add the cooked beans, simmer for about 10 minutes, and then adjust the seasoning as desired. When the beans are soft and creamy, remove the wok from the heat. Let the chili sit for a couple of hours
or overnight to allow the beans to absorb the flavor. Reheat before serving. This is great over rice or with cornbread, and it freezes very well.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Pot au feu chez Huang

Autumn is finally here. The big-leaf maples in our foothills have thrown off their summer green for their stunning fall yellow. 

The flowers in the front yard are starting to fade and stud the garden with warm swaths of brown, confusing the butterflies, but delighting the chickadees and sparrows with this sudden abundance of tiny seeds. 

We’re even supposed to get rain this week, miracles of miracles. 

And so I’m putting away the salads and pulling out my recipes for stews and soups and other comfort foods that will cheer up the evenings and warm our toes.

Today’s dish is ostensibly from Zhejiang, but I’ve messed around with it a little bit. For example, I brown the beef and ginger, rather than keep them pale, as I love the deep flavor that caramelization provides. However, I don’t brown the onions, as that would be make this particular dish too dark.

Heavenly marbleization
Traditionally this is a very simple soup designed to highlight a relatively rare ingredient for Eastern Chinese cuisines: beef. Normally you’ll find this only in the far west, north, and central highlands, but once it a while it shows up in this area, as well as in Guangdong (like Crispy Beef Tomato Chow Mein… oh how I love that).

The only thing I’d advise you to really pay attention to here is the quality of the beef. Nothing will be able to disguise less-than-perfect meat, just as nothing can compare to the aroma and flavor of the finest beef. So last week when I came across these lovely chuck steaks at the Five Dot Ranch stall at Oxbow, they practically called out to me. I also managed to stock up on other hard-to-get yet incredibly delicious items such as beef heart, tripe, and shins. (More on those in the future.)

When an ingredient is as rare as beef in Zhejiang, you know that their heirloom recipes are going to put a spotlight on its presence, for it would have been an expensive treat. At the same time, any gaminess would have always been downplayed, for that is something that wouldn’t ever play well at a Hangzhou feast. So, what you end up with is something actually quite delicate and clever. Stark, even.

Ginger is a necessity here
Because it is so stark, I like to serve this with a mellow scallion-ginger dipping sauce. You’ve probably had this before many times in Cantonese delis, as it is almost a mandatory accompaniment to other plain dishes like White Cut Chicken. Using it here transforms something almost Puritanical into a sybaritic experience, for each slice of the braised beef gets bathed in a richly seasoned oil. 

I’ve tossed in spinach at the end, too, to make this more like a pot au feu– meat and veg all in one tidy casserole. It’s simple, yet delectable, and yet one more reason why I always look forward to autumn.

Pot au feu chez Huang
Huángjiā qīngdùn níuròu 黃家清燉牛肉
Zhejiang crossed with Guangdong
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon oil
1 generous tablespoon julienned ginger
1½ pounds | 750 g chuck steak (or whatever braise-worthy cut of beef looks good to you)
¼ cup | 60 ml Shaoxing rice wine, plus more as needed
Half an onion, thickly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
Boiling water, as needed
Ice cubes, as needed
Mushroom seasoning or sea salt to taste
1 bunch spinach, cleaned and coarsely chopped, optional

Dipping sauce:
See the sauce for White Cut Chicken

Ahhhh, that caramel color
Note: These directions are for a pressure cooker. If you don’t have one, simply follow the directions through Step 2 using a wok or casserole, and then simmer the beef uncovered until it is barely fork tender, adding more liquid as needed. 

1. Set the bottom of a pressure cooker over medium-high heat and pour in the oil. Sprinkle in the ginger and then add the steak. Sear the steak on both sides until it is brown and crispy – the best way to do this is to patiently wait until a crust has formed on the bottom, at which point you will be able to gently nudge the beef free. It will stick and tear if you fuss with it before it’s ready, so really, wait for that crust to form. Always remember that caramelization is divine.

2. Pour in the rice wine. Add the onions and then the boiling water to barely cover. Do not add salt of any kind at this point, as it will toughen the meat. Cover the pressure cooker, seal, and cook on high pressure for 40 minutes, regulating the heat as needed. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let it cool down until you can open it easily. The beef should be barely fork tender, but not falling apart.

Fatty icebergs
3. Remove the beef to a plate, cool it to room temperature, and refrigerate it if you are not using it that evening. When the stock has cooled down, add a good handful of ice cubes to it, as this will solidify the fat. Strain the stock and discard the fat and solids. 

4. Cut the beef crosswise against the grain into slices about ½ inch | 1 cm thick, or however you like. Set it in a casserole and pour the strained stock over it. Gently raise the heat to a simmer so that the meat is warmed through but not violently recooked. Taste the stock and adjust the seasoning with more rice wine or whatever else you think it needs. Add the optional spinach, cover, and simmer these together just to wilt the leaves. Scoot the spinach into an attractive nest. Serve hot with the dipping sauce.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Hakka braised stuffed vegetables

You will find meat-stuffed 
vegetables and bean curd throughout much of China’s southern regions, but for my money the best version belongs to the Hakka.

Part of this has to do with the emphasis on the vegetables, rather than the stuffing. 

Hakka food is very veggie-centric, and so meat tends to serve as a seasoning most of the time, rather than the main event. And in this dish, the results are superb and perfectly balanced. 

Eggplant becomes soft and comforting, the peppers provide spark and interest, and the mushrooms add their own spin on meatiness. It’s an inspired combination. But what I really love is the eggplant, so there is a preponderance of eggplant in here. 

Rice wine, fish sauce, oyster sauce
My late father-in-law was a master at stuffing bean curd (aka doufu or tofu), and his preferred filling was a mixture of ground dace (a kind of fish) and pork. You often can find dace already pounded into a thick, smooth paste at Chinese markets with a large Cantonese clientele, but I tend to be wary, as who know what’s in there and how long it’s been there.

So, to get a taste of the sea, I use things like oyster sauce and fish sauce to ramp up the xianwei (umami) here. The results are absolutely delicious.

This Hakka dish traditionally has three main ingredients, which almost always includes eggplant, and the other main candidates are bean curd, sweet pepper, chile peppers, bitter melon, and mushrooms. 

Stuffed 'shrooms & peppers
Now that the eggplants and pepper plants are going crazy in my back yard, I feature them here with pleasure. 

This is not at all hard to pull together. In fact, you can do it in stages, if you like. To be honest, this braise is even better if you can manage to get everything done ahead of time so that it can sit in the fridge for a day or two, for it allows the flavors to mellow and mingle, and the sauce to permeate down into the filling and vegetables.  

All you need to do then is simply heat it up and serve it with steamed rice and maybe a green vegetable. 

Hakka braised stuffed vegetables chez Huang
Huángjiā Kèjiā niàngsānbăo  黃家客家釀三寶
Whack until sticky
Serves 6 to 8

1 pound ground pork (not too lean)
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
1 scallion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ cup | 50 g cornstarch, or so

5 to 6 fat Chinese or 4 Japanese eggplants (long, rather than egg-shaped)
1 large or 2 small sweet peppers (any variety), and/or 6 to 12 fat fresh chile peppers (of whatever heat level you fancy)
An eggplant 'sandwich'
8 brown mushrooms, or some other stuffable mushroom

The braise:
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
6 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly whacked
6 slices fresh ginger
1 scallion, chopped
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine
1½ teaspoons sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups | 500 ml unsalted chicken stock plus 1 cup | 250 ml water, or 3 cups | 750 ml water

Chopped cilantro, torn basil, or chopped scallions

Filled sandwich
1. Place the ground pork on a cutting board and whack away at it with the back of a heavy knife, scraping it up and turning it over, until it is light. Place this in a medium work bowl. Add the ginger, scallion, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and egg, and beat these together with your hand (hold it stiff like paddle) to incorporate these fully. Alternatively, you can use a food processor, but what’s the fun in that?

2. Trim off the stem and blossom ends of the eggplant. Cut the eggplant crosswise into pieces about 1 inch | 2.5 cm thick, and then cut each of these almost all the way through the middle, so that they are connected at one side; this will help keep the sandwiches from falling apart. Dust the insides of the eggplant sandwiches with cornstarch.

Dusted sandwich
3. Cut the sweet peppers in half, remove the stems and seeds, and then cut them into pieces about the same size as the eggplant. Cut the chile peppers in half, remove the stems and seeds, and cut them into smaller pieces, if necessary. Wipe the mushrooms clean and remove the stems. Dust the insides of these vegetables with some cornstarch, too.

4. Fill the eggplant sandwiches, peppers, and mushrooms with the meat mixture, patting it in so that it’s glued inside the vegetables. Dust the meaty areas of the stuffed vegetables with cornstarch, as this will help prevent them from sticking to the pan and falling apart, and then knock off the excess. If you have extra filling or vegetables, don't sweat it. Just brown them, too, and toss them into the pot.
Frying up the eggplant
5. Now prepare the sauce. Pour about a tablespoon of oil in a large casserole or sandpot and set it over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and scallions. Brown these lightly, and then add the rest of the braising ingredients. Bring the liquid to a boil, simmer for a few minutes, and then reduce the heat to low.

6. Finally, fry the vegetables. Set a large flat pan on medium heat and add a good glug of oil. When the oil is hot, place the stuffed vegetables in the pan and brown all over, adjusting heat as needed. Remove these to the casserole or sandpot as they turn completely golden. You will have to do this in batches, by the way. Be sure and set the peppers and mushrooms meat-side up, as this will help keep the filling in place. The liquid doesn’t need to cover the vegetables, but they all should have at least their feet wet. 

So satisfying
7. Bring the casserole or sandpot almost to a boil, and then lower it to a very gentle simmer. Do not stir the veggies, as this might knock out the filling. Slowly bvraise the vegetables for about an hour, and then remove from the heat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning as desired. This dish should rest for at least 15 minutes, and is even better the next day. 

8. Carefully pour off the liquid into a gravy separator, if you have one, as the eggplant will have dumped most of the oil by now. You can also simply skim off the oil with a spoon. (Keep this oil for stir-frying or eggs – it’s really aromatic.) Boil the sauce in a saucepan until thick. You will have a lot of food here, so you can do what I do: pack it up in containers and either freeze or refrigerate until needed. Microwave or steam the veggies until heated through. Pour the hot, thick sauce over the top. Sprinkle with cilantro, basil, or scallions, and serve hot.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Fig leaf ice cream chez Huang

I’ve always been fascinated by two things in this recipe: the startlingly seductive flavor of fig leaves (which is Italian) and the use of cornstarch (which is Chinese, as well as from other parts of the world too, if we’re being honest).

Ok, three things: This can be a totally vegan ice cream and still be incredibly delicious.

Cornstarch here acts like egg yolks usually do in an ice cream: it makes the texture smoother, it miniaturizes the ice crystals, and it provides a satisfyingly creamy texture. 

My husband grew up on a series of military compounds in Taiwan, as his father was a colonel in the air force. J.H. has always had a pronounced sweet tooth, just like his father, and so ice cream of sorts was a more or less regular treat when he was a kid. 

The thing is, you couldn’t find ice cream in a store, and no one had ice cream trucks or, of course, ice cream makers, but what they did have was stores that would freeze your ice cream. You just had to provide the mix.

My husband remembers riding on a bicycle with his father and carrying two large tins filled with whatever Mom had whipped up. It sometimes was a mixture of powdered dry milk (a gift of the Americans then stationed on the island) boiled up with cornstarch and sugar to make a simple ice cream base, very similar to what we have here today. At other times soymilk or fruit juice took the place of milk, but cornstarch was always involved because that’s what gave the frozen dessert heft and texture. 
We're talking about amazing fragrance

Sometimes it was nothing more than sugar water cooked with cornstarch when the cupboards were empty. But with four little kids always craving something cold and sweet hanging around the house, his mother really couldn’t go wrong, no matter what she made. 

Freezing the ice cream was another thing altogether. It depended upon pure brawn and lots of experience. The liquid was poured into large pans set over ice (and probably salt, like an old-fashioned ice cream maker), and then this was stirred constantly with big spatulas until it froze up. Then the ice cream was packed back into the tins and rushed home by bicycle to feed the hungry hordes.

I have to point out that I have no idea why people don’t use cornstarch in their ice creams. Take one taste and you’ll agree. This is like silk, and it is less heavy, so you can eat more. Yay.

I’ve been entranced with the idea of fig leaves in ice cream for decades, ever since I first read about it in an old cookbook. I mean, fig leaves under a hot sun smell amazing. There are notes of vanilla, coconut, even nuts in there. You can toast them first, if you like, to get a (duh) toastier flavor, but it’s not necessary. 

I was visiting my friend Cynthia in Santa Rosa yesterday, and she shared some of her Brown Turkish figs topped with Humboldt Fog cheese, which pretty much sent me over the moon. And then I stepped out into her yard, checked out the tree, and went gaga over their bounty. 
Brown Turkish fig leaves

I took some cuttings, which I hope will eventually turn into little trees of my own. But what happened - my story does have a point, I promise - was that I trimmed off the leaves and left them on the kitchen counter. And it was like I had opened a spice drawer... their aromas became more insistent and seductive the longer they dried. And so I had to do something wonderful with them, and of course that involved dessert.

The milk and the sweetener in this recipe are open to interpretation. Today I used cashew milk and nut cream to emphasize the lightness of this figgy aroma and also to play off of its inherent nuttiness. Dairy works perfectly, as does pretty much anything reasonable. 

For the sugar I like agave syrup, again because it has a lighter flavor than honey, but also doesn’t make my mouth sour like sugar tends to do, and I do love the slight caramel tone that it gives the ice cream. I’ve toned down the sweetness, naturally, but you can amp it up. 

Add toasted coconut or nuts, if you like, or sprinkle the ice cream with something like reduced balsamic vinegar, saba, or even melted fig jam. Serve it with fresh or broiled or grilled figs. The possibilities are endless, really. Just be sure to do this before the first cold winds turn the fig leaves yellow. And get yourself a friend with a fig tree or two.

You can even make this vegan!
Fig leaf ice cream chez Huang
Huángjiā wúhuāguŏyè bīngqílín 黃家無花果葉冰淇淋
Taiwan Military Families cuisine crossed with Italian traditions
Makes about 1 quart | 1 liter

8 fresh or dried fig leaves, washed and stems removed
2 cups | 500 ml milk of any kind (dairy, nut, or coconut)
3 heaping tablespoons | 30 g cornstarch
2 cups | 500 ml cream of any kind (dairy, nut, or coconut)
Good pinch of sea salt
½ cup | 125 ml agave syrup, or other sweetener to taste

1. Place the fig leaves in a heavy saucepan and add the milk. Bring the milk almost to a boil over medium heat. When bubbles form along the edge, remove the pan from the heat and cover it for at least 15 minutes. Taste the milk, and if you want a stronger flavor, let the leaves steep longer. Strain out the leaves and discard them.

2. Put the cornstarch in a pitcher or bowl and slowly stir in the cream with a whisk so that you don’t have any lumps. Whisk in the infused milk, salt, and agave syrup into the cream, and then return this to the pan. 

Heat the leaves in your milk
3. Set the pan over medium heat and stir the bottom constantly with a whisk to prevent lumps from forming and the bottom from burning. When the mixture is almost ready to boil, it will have thickened up and have the texture of sour cream. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more sugar or salt or whatever else you want at this point.

4. Pour the thickened mixture through a sieve into a heatproof bowl or pitcher and let it cool down completely, and then refrigerate until cold. It will form a skin on top, but that’s all right – this will disappear when it’s churned.

5. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker. Remove it to a freezer-safe container and freeze it for a day or two to develop its flavor. Serve with whatever sounds good. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sichuan-style mung bean sheets

As the warm weather begins to taper off, I begin to think of all the summer foods I should have talked about earlier but somehow didn’t. This is one of them.

Today’s recipe features a staple in my kitchen: mung bean sheets. Called lāpí 拉皮or fĕnpí 粉皮 in Mandarin, these are translucent rounds made from mung bean starch, dried into plate-sized circles, and sold in the same aisle as dried noodles and so forth. 

The most famous brands come from Tianjin, but they are beloved in many parts of China, particularly the north and in Sichuan. 

One thing you should remember with these mung bean sheets is that they are always a hundred times better when they have just been soaked. 

Seriously beautiful in their dried state
They are especially satiny when hot, as you will taste in this amazing casserole. And so, even though theoretically you may toss these with sesame oil and refrigerate in a plastic bag, they will never be quite as soft and silky as they once were.

So, if you are not feeding a bunch of people, cut this recipe down by half or even a third. 

Leftovers are a bit of a pain in the butt because you are faced with a dilemma: if you microwave the noodles in order to restore them to a semblance of slithery softness, the cucumbers and green onions will wither down into a weird mush.

With a floral beauty when plumped up
One way or the other, this is not going to be that pleasant. That is why you should make only what you are pretty sure you’re going to finish in one meal.

The good news is that this is delicious on so many levels, not only for its taste, but also for the lovely textural fireworks. Consider putting this on a bed of baby lettuces for a refreshing salad. Or, if you want to be more traditional, offer this as an appetizer before a Sichuanese meal. 

A note on the sauce: be sure it’s an oil-based one if you’re getting something at the store. Look at the ingredient list, which should start out with two words: chilies and oil. Fermented sauces will not work here. 

The best of all worlds is one where you make your own chile goop, like this one or this one. Trust me, these are things you should have in your arsenal at all times. 

Sichuan-style mung bean sheets
Sìchuān liángbàn lāpí 四川涼拌拉皮
What to look for
Serves 8 as an appetizer

Bean sheets:
3 sheets dried mung bean sheets (fenpi)
Boiling water to cover
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil 

Chicken and vegetables:
12 ounces | 300 g cooked, boneless chicken
2 Persian (or other small seedless) cucumbers, or 1 large cucumber
1 or 2 green onions

½ cup | 125 ml chile goop (homemade or something that is oil-based, rather than fermented)
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup | 60 ml peanut butter
2 tablespoons sesame oil or chile oil
2 tablespoons dark vinegar (like balsamic)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce

Lots of crunch
¼ cup | 30 g toasted sesame seeds
Small bunch of cilantro, optional

1. Place the dried mung bean sheets in a large work bowl and pour the boiling water over them to cover. The sheets will begin to soften in a few minutes, so if any areas are sticking above the water, use your tongs to jab them down under. Allow the sheets to soak and rehydrate for about half an hour while you prepare the rest of the meal. (If you are making this a couple hours ahead of time, soak the mung bean strips during the last hour so that they don't become an unmanageable tangle.)

2. Shred or cut the chicken into thin strips. (You can remove the skin, if you like, but I enjoy the added texture and flavor that skin can bring.) You can either chill the chicken or warm it slightly in the microwave; I prefer the latter, but it’s up to you.
Tossed and ready to eat

3. Trim the ends off of the cucumbers and split them lengthwise before cutting them in half across the middle; cut each piece into thin strips. Cut the green onions into thin shreds. 

4. Mix together the dressing ingredients and keep at room temperature.

5. Drain the mung bean sheets and pour cold water over them, but do this carefully; they will have turned completely clear at this point and are rather fragile. You probably won't have to cut them since they tend to fall apart into bite-sized pieces all by themselves. Gently toss them with the bit of sesame oil to keep them from sticking together.

5. Just before serving, layer the mung bean sheets on your serving platter, then the cucumbers, green onions, and chicken, and pour half of the dressing over the top. Garnish with the sesame seeds and optional cilantro, and have the extra dressing on the side for anyone who cares for more.