Monday, May 18, 2015

A refreshing and crunchy appetizer from Beijing

As the weather heats up around here, it's time for me to start thinking about cool and refreshing meals, because if you're anything like me, your appetite lags in direct proportion to the rise in mercury.  

One way to make food more appealing is to offer a spread of what the Chinese call "stomach openers," or kaiweicai, the very definition of appetizers. Most of what I offer here are vegetarian - that's because to my mind few things are as refreshing on a sweltering day as cold salads and chilled veggies.

Today's recipe is a popular Beijing-style dish that is an easy toss of blanched spinach and fried peanuts. As with all things Chinese, though, the secret is in the balance, in the timing, and in the brilliant contrasts between flavors and textures.

If you've been cooking along with this blog, Spinach and Peanut Appetizer will prove to be particularly foolproof since it relies on the delicious fried peanuts I showed you how to make a long while ago. Plus, you'll want to spike this dish with either the dressing that's given below or, if you are really industrious, you'll be able to lace it with some of that glorious garlic-infused sweet vinegar that is the ambrosial by-product of the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves of Shanxi. In fact, this makes perfect sense, because Shanxi is up there in the northern reaches of China, not too far at all from Beijing, and so if it seems that these dishes come together as if they were closely related, that's because they are.
Easy peasy

The only thing I ask you to take particular care with - aside from frying the peanuts, of course - is the washing of the spinach. Nothing destroys a spinach dish faster than grit, and spinach seems to hold onto sand with impressive tenacity. The best way to wash spinach is to use the trick I learned eons ago from Marian Morash's Victory Garden Cookbook: Wash the spinach in a tub of warm water, which is easier on your hands and so makes swishing around the leaves a whole lot more pleasant. Rinse and swish the spinach, changing the water each time until there is absolutely no sand left in the bottom of the bowl. Then, shake the leaves dry; you don't need to get them totally dry for this dish, as they are going to be blanched.

Chinese dishes rarely call for spinach to be stemmed. If you have a tough bunch of spinach, though, this is a great time to learn how to remove the stems ala Julia Child: just grab the leaves with one hand while pulling up on the stems like a zipper with the other... totally easy and a skill that will come in handy more times than you'll think possible. No need to throw out the stems, though; toss them into your stockpot or rinse them well, chop them finely, blanch or stir-fry, and season as desired. (Sorry, but my thrifty Scot nature has a nervous breakdown at the first sign of waste.)

Enjoy this dish either chilled or slightly warm. If you are making it ahead of time, wait until the last minute to toss in the dressing and peanuts so that the spinach remains a lovely emerald green and the peanuts stay crunchy.
Wash the spinach carefully, please

Beijing-style spinach and peanut appetizer 
Bōcài huāshēng
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer, 2 to 3 as a side dish

1 bunch (about 12 ounces) fresh spinach, as tender as possible
¼ cup fried peanuts
2 to 3 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
3 or more tablespoons sauce from the sweet pickled garlic cloves (or
1 clove garlic, finely minced, plus 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce, plus 1 tablespoon tasty dark vinegar, plus 1 teaspoon sugar)
Sea salt to taste

1. Clean the spinach as directed above, removing any tough stems. Blanch the spinach by bringing about 2 inches of water to a boil in a large (2 quart) covered saucepan before adding the spinach, covering the pot again, and then quickly tossing the spinach with a pair of tongs as soon as the water boils again. Once all of the leaves have wilted, but are still bright green and barely cooked, drain the spinach in a colander set in the sink. Spray cold water over the spinach to stop the cooking and preserve the color. Lightly squeeze the spinach dry and chill it if you are not serving it immediately.

2. If you haven't fried the peanuts yet, do so now, as they will need to cool down before they become crispy. 
The delectable dressing

3. To make the dressing, combine the sesame oil with either the sauce from the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves or the rest of the ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

4. Just before serving, toss the spinach with the sauce and the Fried Peanuts. Serve cold.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The sweetness of water chestnuts

I adore the delicate desserts of China’s southern regions, particularly those of Guangdong.

This might have something to do with the infamous sweet tooth my late father-in-law sported, and I guess I caught the bug from him. He was a devotee of his thin black sesame candies that he swore kept his hair black, but I’m pretty sure it was just an excuse to keep a good supply on hand.

Perfect with hot tea
I could always count on him to come up with something sweet and tasty to enjoy whenever we rambled around Los Angeles’s old Chinatown. One of his favorites was airy lunjiaogao (also known as "white sugar cake") with its winy aroma, and another was the steamed amber confection called Malagao. But he rarely beamed as brightly as when he was confronted with a plate of water chestnut pudding.

This cool sweet is perfect for afternoon tea, its softly purple and pink surfaces punctuated with crunchy bits of fresh water chestnuts. It’s a lovely way to end a feast, to nibble on as you while away an afternoon over a pot of hot tea, or luxuriate in as a late night snack.

Fresh water chestnuts are increasingly available in better supermarkets, but if they’re not to be found, please don’t resort to canned ones, which I find taste more of the can than they do of water chestnuts. Instead, hunt down a small jicama, a Latin American tuber that is almost as sweet and crunchy as water chestnuts.

Water chestnut flour is available in most Chinese markets and can be purchased online if you aren’t popping down to Chinatown anytime soon. Just be sure and crush the flour in a food processor or blender, as it tends to have a crumbly texture right out of the box. I like to add a bit of red food coloring to one layer of this pudding, as it makes it look even more enticing, but it’s not a deal breaker.

Get the real deal

Water chestnut pudding
Mǎtí gāo 馬蹄糕
Serves 6 to 8 easily as a dessert

½ cup water                            
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter or shortening
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup water chestnut flour
1¼ cups cold water

2 cups julienned, peeled fresh water chestnuts (about 16), or finely chopped peeled jicama
2 drops red food coloring, optional

1. Grease a heatproof pan (square or round) that’s 8 or 9 inches across. Prepare a steamer that easily holds this pan.

2. Place the ½ cup water, sugar, butter or shortening, and salt into a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Whirl the water chestnut flour in a food processor until it’s very fine. With the machine running, add the water to the flour to form a thick paste. Pour this paste into the saucepan and stir everything together over medium heat until a thick, bubbly batter has formed.

3. Add the water chestnuts or jicama to the batter and then (if you’re using the food coloring) pour half of the batter into the pan, steam the pudding for 5 minutes to set it, add the food coloring to the remaining batter, and pour it over the set layer before steaming it for another 30 minutes. If you’re not using food coloring, pour all of the batter into the pan and steam it for 30 minutes.
One gorgeous dessert

4. Remove the pan from the steamer and let it cool. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and chill it for at least an hour. Cut the pudding into diamond shapes or squares and serve cold. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator in a covered container for a few days.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The satay sauce of Chaozhou

Chaozhou is considered by most Chinese culinary experts to be one of Guangdong's three main cuisines, in addition to the dishes of the Hakka and, of course, the foods that are more typically Cantonese. But other than the fact that Chaozhou is located in the upper section of Guangdong province, that's pretty much where the similarities end, for just like Hakka cooking, this is more a case of geographic proximity than stylistic resemblances.

As Chinese food writer Tang Zhenchang wrote in his Yongsun ji (Breakfast and supper journal), "Chaozhou cooking is not one of the Eight Great Cuisines, probably because it was assumed that Chaozhou cooking could be categorized with Guangdong cuisine. This also is not correct; generally speaking Cantonese cuisine cannot encompass the special characteristics of Chaozhou cuisine, something that that all diners know."

L to R: Veggie, original, & numbing-spicy
One of the main things that sets Chaozhou cuisine apart from the rest of Guangdong's cooking its marvelous shachajiang, or satay sauce. And although it bears the same name as the famous Indonesian sauce, Chaozhou's satay is completely different. Here it is a pungent and thoroughly addictive combination of dried shrimp, garlic, shallots, chilies, and dried fish. (Vegetarians can also enjoy this sauce, for meatless versions are available; these will usually have a Buddhist swastika on them.)

This satay is often used, as here, with another sauce that shows evidence of Southeast Asian influences: fish sauce, which for some reason is often referred to as "shrimp oil" (xiayou) in Chinese. These two come together to offer a delicious funkiness to the dishes of Chaozhou, but it remains a subtle undercurrent that beguiles the tongue and amplifies the freshness of the other ingredients. 

Satay sauce can also be used as a base for some delicious soups, as part of complex dipping sauces for meats and vegetables, and as a component in grilling sauces, but it is almost always first fried to release its fragrance and shrug off any canned aromas. In fact, it's this preliminary frying that gives depth and soul to satay dishes, elevating them into something pretty much approaching the sublime.

Torn oyster mushrooms
A couple notes about the vegetables here. First, I've added oyster mushrooms to the mix since I like the juiciness and extra layer of flavor they provide. So, if you're a vegetarian, you can use all mushrooms here instead of the beef. Do note the way that the mushrooms are prepped: they are torn down the length into long strips, rather than sliced, which gives them more of a "meaty" texture and helps keep them from falling apart.

Celery provides a really delicious herbal note here, as well as a nice crunch. You'll see that I've recommended a deep green celery because that's the kind that has all of the flavor; pale celery is rather bland. And if you can find it, Chinese celery is terrific here since it has an even more pronounced flavor than the Western kind. Finally, mung (green bean) sprouts lighten up the dish so that it doesn't become too intense from all of the sauce's strong flavors. 

Bean sprouts can be a bit of a pain because they seem to self-destruct within minutes of getting them home. The secret to keeping your sprouts happy is to submerge them in cool water and store them in the fridge as soon as you can. Change the water every day and use them as soon as humanly possible. They won't last forever, but this does eke a couple of more moments out of their limited lifespan.

Coat the beef
You'll notice that I have you cook the beef, vegetables, and sauce separately. Feel free to just scoot the beef and vegetables up the side of the wok if you feel confident enough, and that is what I've done in the picture below. The main thing you want to be sure of is that nothing gets overcooked. Freshness is the hallmark of Chaozhou cooking, so keep the meat tender and the vegetables crisp, and then bind them together at the last second with this savory sauce.

If you want, serve this by itself over rice or in stir-fried fresh rice noodles (hefen) for a simple and delicious meal that will satisfy just about every sense you possess.

Satay steak and bean sprouts 
Yínyá shāchá níuròu 銀芽沙茶牛肉  
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main course

1 pound skirt steak
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 teaspoons light soy sauce

¼ cup Chinese satay sauce (shachajiang), preferably the Niutou (Ox Head) brand from Taiwan
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
¼ cup lightly salted stock
4 teaspoons dark soy sauce

Everything else:
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled
2 or 3 deep green celery stalks (Chinese celery preferred)
1 pound very fresh mung bean sprouts
4 green onions, trimmed
6 ounces oyster mushrooms, optional
10 tablespoons (or so) peanut or vegetable oil, divided

1. Rinse the meat and pat dry with a paper towel. Cut the meat against the grain into ½-inch strips. Place them in a work bowl and toss with the light soy sauce and cornstarch. Allow the meat to marinade while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Mix the sauce ingredients together in a small work bowl.  Taste the sauce and add more sugar, satay sauce, fish sauce, or soy sauce as desired, since there's a wide variety of differences among the various satay and fish sauces. You can also adjust the seasoning at the end.

3. Slice the ginger against the grain into very thin pieces, and then cut these up into thin strips. Wash the celery stalks carefully and trim off both ends; if the strings are tough, then remove them too. Slice the celery crosswise into 2- or 3-inch pieces, and then slice them lengthwise into thin julienne. Rinse the beansprouts and drain thoroughly. Cut the green onions in half lengthwise and then into pieces that are the same length as the cut celery. Clean the mushrooms, if you are using them, and tear them into shreds, starting at the caps and pulling them gently down their stems until they are about the same size as the steak strips.
Scoot up the veggies & boil down the sauce

4. Heat 6 tablespoons of the oil in a wok until the oil smokes, add the ginger, and stir-fry it for a few seconds to release its flavor. Toss in the beef and any of its juices, and stir-fry the beef until most of the pink is gone. Remove the beef to a clean plate or work bowl.

5. Heat the rest of the oil over high heat and add the mushrooms. Stir-fry them until they are lightly browned all over, and then toss in the celery for a few seconds to take off the raw edge. Add the bean sprouts and just barely cooked - you do not want to have them anything other than crisp, so be careful. Remove the vegetables and add them to the beef.

6. Get the wok hot again and pour in the sauce. Reduce it very quickly until it is syrupy, and then add all of the vegetables and beef to the wok. Quickly toss them all together over high heat to combine, and then serve immediately.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Something that will make your Taiwanese friends deliriously happy

One time we were absolutely starved, but since the restaurant we normally patronize in a Chinese strip mall near here was still taking its afternoon siesta, we hunted around for something else to eat. 

The sign for one place looked promising: home-style Taiwanese food. Visions of the great street food we used to enjoy in Taipei danced in our head, and we were almost giddy at the thought of having some oyster rolls, fish ball soup, sesame oil chicken, and braised pork over rice.

Our hopes and ravenous taste buds were dashed with equal force when the waiter said that they didn't have any of those dishes, either on the menu or because they weren't in stock. So, we ordered a bunch of other items that were barely edible and not particularly memorable except for their extravagant prices.

The secret ingredients
And I started to wonder, why can't I get some of Taiwan's greatest street foods around here? There certainly are enough Taiwanese in the Bay Area to warrant a try, and I bet if any clever restaurateur put a good bowl of that porky manna from heaven called lurou fan before a homesick Taiwanese, he or she would have a customer for life.

Utterly dissatisfied with my meal, but with my memories and appetite kicked into full gear, I went grocery shopping on my way home.

Right after I walked in the door, I got out my wok and whipped up one of those staples of Taiwanese street food, the kind of food that grandmas have bubbling on the stove and sending out puffs of deliriously delicious fragrances out of apartment windows, one of those dishes that you swear you can smell in your dreams.

The good thing is that it's not hard to make, it's great to have on hand, and anyone who likes pork and soy sauce will fall in love. As in the traditional recipes, the pork is served with a hard-boiled egg that has simmered in the pork sauce, as well as a bright round of Japanese pickled daikon. 
Learn how to boil the perfect egg!

In our house, we have one person who will eat as many eggs as he can get away with. (One time I made a dozen eggs like these and came upon him in the kitchen happily polishing off egg #9.) I therefore make lots more eggs that these recipes usually call for. Feel free to double or triple the amount of hard-boiled eggs; your only limitation is the sauce that needs to cover them, and the recipe can be doubled or tripled, as well. I have some suggestions below on how to get your eggs to end up with a yolk that is balanced in the center, rather than clinging to one side and subjecting the white to tearing.

There is also a recipe here for fried shallots, a prized seasoning in Taiwanese cooking. If you can, double the recipe and use the crispy little rings in your eggs, over noodles, on top of soups or even salads, and anywhere that could benefit from their subtle oniony punch and crunch. The oil the shallots were fried in is wonderful too, and is one of Chinese cuisine's traditional finishing oils, or mingyou, that are sprinkled over dishes to add a nice sheet and touch of flavor. Store this oil in the fridge, and keep a bit of it in a squirt bottle next to the stove. 

Frying shallots - seriously yum
Back to the star of the show, though. The resulting pork and sauce is served over a bowl of steaming rice with an egg (or three), a sprinkle of chopped cilantro, and a couple slices of that neon yellow Japanese daikon pickle known as takuan. This last fillip is probably a leftover from Taiwan's colonial days, when the Japanese ruled the roost. The politics of the matter aside, Japan left its cuisine behind in good hands, for this touch of color and piquant flavor is nothing less than perfect in this bowl of traditional Taiwanese aromas.

Eat it and weep... with delight.

Diced braised pork over rice
Lǔròu fàn 滷肉飯
Southern Fujian & Taiwan
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multi-course meal

Fried shallots:
1 cup thinly-sliced shallots or small onions
2 cups fresh vegetable or peanut oil

Braised pork and eggs:
2 pounds fresh pork (try to get a ratio of two parts lean to one part fat)
½ cup garlic, chopped
½ cup shallots, chopped
The fried shallots (see above)
6 tablespoons peanut oil
Boiling water as needed
6 to 8 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

4 tablespoons tasty peanut butter, chunky or smooth
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 whole star anise
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup light soy sauce
¾ cup mild rice wine (
Taiwanese Mijiu) 
Rock sugar to taste (or about the size of a walnut)
4 cups boiling water

Final touches:
6 to 8 cups hot steamed rice
Pickled Japanese daikon (takuan), sliced
Chopped cilantro

1. Start this dish at least a day before you want to serve it. First make the fried shallots. Separate the sliced shallots (or onions) into rings so that they fry quickly and evenly. Heat the oil in a wok over medium high heat until a wooden or bamboo chopstick inserted into the oil is immediately covered with bubbles. Sprinkle in the shallots, reduce the heat to medium, and slowly fry them until they turn a golden brown, stirring often so that they do not burn or cook unevenly. Remove the fried shallots to a plate, strain the oil, and use that as a finishing oil, or mingyou, in other dishes.

Porky gravel
2. Blanch the pork for ten minutes and cut in small dice.  Fry the raw shallots and garlic in oil until light brown. Add the pork and fry it until cooked it begins to brown; if you have pork skin in the mix, be sure to use a spatter shield or a lid over the pork while it is frying, since the pork skin is liable to explode and shoot all over. Add the fried shallots and all of the sauce ingredients, topping it off with enough boiling water to cover. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover, and let it cook for about half an hour. 

3. Taste and adjust the flavor with salt, wine, and sugar as needed. Add the eggs, bring the pot to a boil again, and then let it simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes. Allow the sauce to come to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate overnight for best flavor. Try to submerge the eggs so that they obtain an even golden color.

4. The next day or - even better - after a couple of days, scrape most of the fat off of the top (if you want) before bringing the pork and eggs to a boil again; reduce it to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered for about an hour, turning the eggs occasionally so that they tan evenly. (If you cook the eggs with the cover on, they will get a honeycomb effect throughout the egg whites and will become tough.) Remove the eggs from the sauce and bring the pork and sauce to a boil to reduce it to about ¼ to ½ cup.

5. To serve, place about a cup of hot steamed rice in a large soup bowl, and put an egg on top of the rice and a mound of the pork next to it along with a couple slices of pickled daikon. Dribble a bit of the sauce over the pork and egg. Dust with some chopped cilantro and serve.

Variations: This pork is great on a variety of things, from fried eggplant to blanched bean sprouts to blanched Chinese chives. Leftovers can be used to top a simple egg omelet, tossed with cooked eggplant, or ladled on top of a bowl of hot noodles soup. Consider making a double amount of the pork and freezing it in 1-cup bags so that you can have lunch or dinner in the time it takes to boil your noodles.

Lovely, lovely eggs
Tip on making a balanced hard-boiled egg: This is one of those cooking secrets that sounds so obvious once you hear it. Just gently stir the eggs as they come to a boil, so that the raw yolk is moving around in the egg while the whites start to set up. Also, use medium heat rather than high heat to boil the eggs, which gives the eggs time to set up evenly.