Monday, June 27, 2016

Feel better soup from Shanghai

If I were asked to think of another country where something sweet was considered therapeutic, I’d be hard pressed to come up with an answer. But China does this on a regular basis. Case in point: this marvelous concoction.

In many ways, this is very similar to a regular old fermented rice soup. Shanghai, though, manages to ratchet the flavors and textures and colors up a whole lot, creating something that is quite unique all the way around. Corn is in there to round out the nutrition and add wonderful bits for the teeth to play with, and wolfberries add a dash of scarlet and light sourness to the mix. Did I happen to mention that this is delicious, too?

Chinese moms whip up soups like this whenever someone doesn’t feel well, has had a baby, or is otherwise miserable. One reason for this is that the fermented rice gets the circulation going, which warms up the toes and makes life seem just a tad more livable. Second is that it just tastes so darned good. And third is, it’s a snap to pull together.
Shave off the kernels

Fermented rice, wolfberry, and corn soup
Gŏuqĭ jīróng yùmĭ gēng  枸杞雞蓉玉米羹
Serves 8

¼ cup / 30g wolfberries
Boiling water, as needed
2 ears fresh corn, or around 1½ cups / 300g frozen tender corn kernels
2 cups / 450ml fermented rice, both solids and liquid
Rock sugar, to taste
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cool water
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. Rinse the wolfberries, place them in a small heatproof bowl, and cover with boiling water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Cut the corn off of the cobs and use your knife to scrape off any pulp and juice. Or, measure out the frozen corn.
Totally luscious

3. About 10 minutes before you serve this, bring 3 cups of water to a full boil in a medium saucepan. Add the wolfberries, their soaking liquid, and the corn. Allow the soup to come to a boil again, and then use a whisk to stir in the fermented rice so that it breaks apart into grains. Add about 1 tablespoon rock sugar, or to taste. When it comes to a boil the third time, stir in the cornstarch mixture until the soup has thickened.

4. Remove the pan from the heat and drizzle the eggs on top in a thin ribbon, back and forth. Wait for about a minute, and then gently stir to make the eggs form gentle wisps. Serve immediately.

Tips

This can be made ahead of time up through Step 3. But don’t add the eggs until the last minute, as you want them to be silky and soft. Reheating the soup just turns them leathery.

Consider this for breakfast, too
The secret to these velvety eggs is the way in which they are poached: the pan is taken off the heat, the eggs are dribbled across the top (never poured into the pan in a vast puddle), and then they are left alone to set up. This way they won’t turn into nasty little tough threads. Instead, they will be sensuous and calming. A simple trick, but incredibly useful.

If you don't want to serve this all at once, reserve half (or so) of the soup after you’ve finished with Step 3 and add the eggs to whatever you’re eating at the time.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Fish with three heads of garlic

In its original form, this is a classic Shanghainese dish. But I’ve gone it a couple times better by tweaking it in various ways. This ends up showing off the sterling quality of an excellent piece of fish while pleasing the nose and the palate with a rich sauce.

Plus, I like to terrify people with the idea that there are three whole heads of garlic in there. They expect this to be absolutely noxious from a mountain of the stinking rose, and then are bowled over by the buttery delicacy of those ivory little petals, for the subtle aroma and flavor of the garlic merely hints at their raw nature.

Most traditional recipes merely ask that you brown a non-startling number of cloves and a sensible amount of ginger and green onions in lard before adding a whole yellow croaker. The fish is browned, the seasonings are added, and the dish is ready when the fish is done. This is simply red-cooked fish with some garlic swimming around. What’s the fun in that?

For my inspiration, I took a page from the old French recipe for chicken with forty cloves of garlic. The first time I made that chicken recipe, I was expecting to be knocked over by the garlic, but instead fell in love with the incredible creaminess of the garlic and the perfume of the sauce. That was filed away in my memory banks until I started to muse about ways to make standard garlic fish into something stunning. (Let that be a lesson to you: read lots and lots and lots of cookbooks. Some of them are the equals of great literature – I’m thinking of M.F.K. Fisher, Roy de Groot, Elizabeth David – plus they tell you how to make food in ways that turn out to be universal.)

And so, after you slog through peeling three heads of garlic (that is the only onerous part of this recipe, by the way), you slowly fry them with the ginger and green onions in a bit of oil until they are golden, lavishly scented, and soft as a lamb’s ear. These are set to one side while you brown the fish, and then the fish gets a chance to relax while you make the sauce.

Now, the second secret of the sauce is that you cook it down separately from the fish. This is really important because you never, ever want overcooked fish. You also never, ever want watery sauce. But, if you make a standard red-cooked fish, you run the risk of either overcooking the fish in order to get flavor in the sauce, or vice versa. So, boil the sauce down rapidly while the fish rests, dunk the fish in the sauce for a few minutes, and then remove the fish to your serving dish. Quickly reduce the sauce a final time until it is thick, bubbly, and looks like dark honey. The flavors will then be jammed in there just waiting to leap on the simple background of the fish, and life will become very good indeed.

Finally, in addition to the insane number of garlic cloves in here, you also have plumped-up mushrooms. Most traditional recipes want you to cut these in half or quarters, but that makes them firm little islands in an ocean of soft textures. So, slice the mushroom caps thinly on the diagonal so that they too can relax in the sauce and turn into supple ribbons. You also get the soaking liquid in the sauce, which really amplifies the xianwei to what are, scientifically speaking, stratospheric levels.
Start peeling those cloves...

And so, in spite of there being three whole heads of garlic in here, I’d strongly suggest that you consider this for an evening when you want to romance someone. It serves four, but you can have the leftovers over a hot bowl of noodles for brunch the next day.


Braised Fish with Three Heads of Garlic
Dàsuàn yú jiā sānbèi 大蒜魚加三倍
Serves 4
  
4 black mushrooms
1 cup / 240ml boiling water
1 to 1½ pounds / 450 to 600g firm-fleshed fish, like Pacific halibut or big skate (see Tips)
7 tablespoons regular soy sauce, divided into 1 and 6 tablespoons
3 heads garlic
½ cup / 120ml fresh peanut or vegetable oil
20 (or so) thin slices ginger
9 green onions, trimmed
1 to 2 tablespoons rock sugar

1. Rinse the mushrooms, place them in a heatproof bowl, and cover with the boiling water. Place a plate on top of the bowl and let the mushrooms plump up while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. (Or, if you are really organized, cover the dried mushrooms with cool water the night before and let them slowly revive, which makes them even better.) When the mushrooms are fat and soft, remove the stems and save them for something else, and then slice the caps on the diagonal into long, thin strips. Reserve the soaking water. Rinse the fish, wipe it dry, place it in another work bowl, and toss it with 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Let the fish marinate for at least 20 minutes, and then discard any liquid in the bowl.

2. Separate the garlic into cloves, cut off the hard ends of each clove, and the lightly smack the cloves before peeling them. Place your wok over medium heat, and add the oil when it is hot. Toss in the garlic and the ginger. Lightly smack the white halves of the green onions and then cut the onions into 2 inch/5 cm lengths before adding them to the wok. Slowly fry these aromatics over medium heat (adjusting the heat as needed) so that they gradually soften and brown; this should take at least 20 minutes. You don’t want them to burn at any point, but rather surrender their flavor to the oil. The garlic will lose all its bite and turn soft and creamy. Remove the aromatics to a small work bowl.
Browned and luscious

3. Raise the heat under the wok to medium-high and add the fish, skin side down. Cook the fish without moving it until it browns, which will allow the soy sauce on the skin to caramelize. Use a wok spatula to loosen the fish and turn it over. Reduce the heat to medium. When the bottom is lightly browned, remove the fish to a plate.

4. Raise the heat under the wok to high, and then add the aromatics, mushrooms, and rice wine to it along with the rest of the soy sauce, about 1 teaspoon rock sugar, and the strained mushroom soaking liquid. Bring this to a full boil. After about a minute, taste the sauce and add more sugar if needed. Quickly cook this down until about half of the sauce remains. Gently slide the fish and any juices into the wok and simmer the fish in the sauce so that they get to know each other. After about 5 minutes, pierce the thickest part with a chopstick – if it goes through the fish as if it were made of butter, the fish is done. Carefully remove the fish to a rimmed deep serving dish, boil the sauce down until it is syrupy, and scrape it over the fish. Serve with hot rice.

Tips

The traditional fish for this recipe is yellow croaker. However, any good, sustainable fish like Pacific halibut or the wing of a big skate will be, in my humble opinion, even better.

If you get something from a giant fish like halibut, aim for the flat section just behind the cavity. This is relatively boneless and has lots of skin, which you want to keep attached to the flesh, for it ends up supplying all sorts of delicious fats and flavors to your dish, plus it helps keep the fish from falling apart. Moreover, the flat shape of this cut of a halibut – like a skate wing – allows it to cook quickly, and yet gives each morsel the chance to be bathed in the sumptuous sauce.


Monday, June 13, 2016

The fermented rice biscuits of Suzhou

It has only taken me about 35 years to figure out how to make these, but it was time well spent.

You see, I became addicted to fermented rice biscuits when I waited for one of Taipei’s buses to ferry me home at the end of a long day at the museum. Cold winter evenings were the worst. Rainy cold winter evenings were absolute hell. My feet would be wet and freezing, passing cabs would splash everyone with muddy puddles, and the gloomy skies made even a 15 minute wait seem like forever.

Fortunately, street hawkers plied the sidewalks with their homemade foods, most of them from every part of China, and I came to know these lovely people on a personal basis after my many years in Taiwan. One of my all-time favorite foods became these grilled biscuits. Lightly sweet and perfumed with fermented rice, a lovely lady from Suzhou used to roll out the dough, fill it, and grill the breads in her portable little kitchen. She had a tiny roof over the work area, and fragrant steam would shroud her wherever she stood, acting as both beacon and an irresistible advertisement.
Crunchy, pillowy, sweet & winy

To her left would be a shiny mound of dough covered with a damp cheesecloth, and as she sold each biscuit as soon as it left the grill, she was a never-ending whirl of activity, gracefully pinching off a fistful of dough, rolling it out, filling it, pleating it closed, and then rolling it out again before tossing it on her black grill.

The anticipation would be intense as I stood there, stamping my feet to keep them from going numb, but almost feverish in my impatience to grab the biscuit with my name on it. She would wrap it in a sheet of brown paper while the bread was still insanely hot, I’d fork over a few cents, and then I would first revel in the heat radiating out into my fingers and wafting up into my face.

Then, that first luscious bite: crunch would yield to tensile bread, with an explosion of wine hitting my nose. An afterthought of red bean paste would be inside, too, but all the mattered to me was the hot biscuit. I would then huddle over it, nibbling it slowly to make it last as long as I could, reveling in the way that even the coldest, most dreary winter might offer a reason for celebration.
Ready to go

Fermented rice biscuits
Jĭuniáng bĭng  酒釀餅
Makes 6
Jiangsu and Shanghai

½ cup/125g fermented rice solids (see Tips)
⅓ cup/75g fermented rice liquid, or mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
2 tablespoons sugar
1½ cups/260g all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
1 teaspoon neutral oil (like canola), plus extra for oiling the frying pan
1½ teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons/ 45g turbinado or light brown sugar (see Tips)
3 tablespoons/ 60g toasted pine nuts, optional

Baking powder is my secret weapon here
1. Start this recipe at least a day before you plan to serve it. Mix the rice, water, and sugar together in a medium work bowl, and then stir in the flour to form thick flakes. Knead until smooth, adding more flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Rub the oil inside a clean work bowl and toss the dough around in it. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and keep it in a warm place 8 hours or even a day or two, which will give the wine yeast time to multiply and turn the dough light and fragrant. It is ready when you can poke two holes in the top and they don’t close up immediately. Also, take a nibble of the dough – it should taste strongly of the wine.

2. Place the dough on a smooth surface and sprinkle it with the baking powder. Knead in the baking powder until all feeling of grittiness is gone and the dough feels smooth once again. Roll it into a ball, return it to the bowl, cover, and let it rest for at least 20 minutes to give the gluten time to relax. The dough will have risen considerably at this point, too, as shown in the photo to the right.

The fluffy second rising
3. Cut the dough into 6 even pieces. On a very lightly floured board, roll each one out into 5-inch circles as if you were going to make baozi, which means that there will be a little bump in the center of the disc and thinnish edges – this will keep the top from becoming too thick. Divide the sugar and optional pine nuts among the discs and then gather the tops up, again as if you were making baozi. Roll the filled balls between your palms to smooth out the seams and then lightly press down on each one to form a patty-like object about 3 inches wide. (You may freeze these at this point and then cook them as needed later on.)

4. Set a wide, flat-bottomed pan on medium heat. When the edges feel hot, use a paper towel to lightly film the bottom with oil. Lower the heat to medium-low. Arrange as many of the discs as you wish to serve in the pan, leaving at least an inch between them so that they can rise as they cook without sticking together. Cover the pan tightly so that steam will form, since this will help cook the insides quickly without burning the outsides. When the bottoms are golden brown (about 5 to 7 minutes) and the biscuits have risen, turn the discs over and cover the pan again. Cook until the other side is golden, too, which should take around 5 minutes. Serve hot. (To reheat these, never ever use a microwave, but rather gently grill them again or even heat them in a low oven, as this will keep the bread from turning tough.)
Fill like baozi

Tips

The flavor of this really depends upon the fermented rice. It must be full-flavored for the biscuits to shine. What this means is that you should let your rice ferment for a couple of weeks so that it has a strongly alcoholic aroma and zero taste of fresh rice. Then, use only the thick rice solids for the first ingredient and the clear wine (or a neutral-tasting rice wine) as the liquid, which pack a double punch of flavor.

This is a specialty of Suzhou and other culinarily enlightened places along the Yangtze River, and each area seems to have its own take on what should be hidden inside. I’ve enjoyed these with the usual red bean paste, plain sugar, and sweetened ground black sesame. However, I’ve found that turbinado sugar and toasted pine nuts take this sweet to extreme levels of hedonistic pleasure, at least as far as I’m concerned.

That being said, don’t overdo it in the filling department. These biscuits are easily overpowered by anything that is too sweet or too whatever. Anything you put in the biscuits should simply serve to amplify and complement the aromas of the wine and bread.

Dimple surface from the nuts
What I’ve done different from any other recipe I’ve found for these biscuits is to use wine instead of water for the liquid, as this amps up the flavors quite wonderfully. I’ve also added baking powder, which makes the breads much lighter and less apt to turn leaden. Be sure and cover the pan, as that way the center cooks through thoroughly – there are few things as sad as a delicious biscuit with a raw doughy center.

Serve these at breakfast, afternoon tea, and as a well-deserved snack in front of bus stops. Hot tea is the perfect accompaniment. They are terrific hot, when the crust is crisp and the center molten, but even at room temperature they are amazing, as the sugar then forms a crunchy, caramelly contrast to the tensile dough.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Fresh bamboo shoots for hot weather

Taiwan spent fifty years under Japanese occupa­tion, from 1895 to 1945, and the culinary influence has never left. The fresh seafood available on the island is part of the reason why the Japanese cui­sine there is so wonderful, but I’m also fond of it because it has been inflected with Chinese flavors.

To make this local specialty, fat winter or spring bamboo shoots are cooked until barely tender, chilled, and then drizzled with ribbons of Japanese mayo. Overall, it’s a very simple dish, but make sure you check out the Tips below for help in selecting the main ingredient.

Beaooootiful
This last week I came across a gorgeous pile of black-sheathed bamboo shoots. They are spring rather than winter bamboo shoots because a) it is no longer winter and b) they are long and thin. I lack all self-control when it comes to ingredients like this, so I bought a large bag of them and happily mused over all of the good things that could be created with them.

And then the weather turned really hot down here, and so it was a no-brainer: they had to be turned into this lovely cold dish that I’ve loved for decades. Share the joy.


Cold bamboo shoots with mayonnaise
Liángbàn zhúsŭn 涼拌竹筍
Taiwan
Serves 4 to 6

1 pound winter bamboo shoots, fresh or frozen and defrosted (see Tips)
2 teaspoons sea salt
Curly lettuce leaves for garnish, optional
Kewpie brand mayonnaise, as needed
Peel off the sheaths

1. Start this recipe at least 4 hours—and up to 3 days—before serving. If using fresh bamboo shoots, peel them. To do this, first cut off thin slices from the base with a very sharp knife until the meat is a pure ivory color. Then, slit the sheath up from one side, starting at the bottom and exerting more pressure as you reach the tip, which will aim your blade down through the sheath layers and make their removal relatively easy. Trim off any less-than-perfect bits. If you are using winter bamboo, cut the shoots into chunks about 1 inch all around. For spring bamboo, slice the shoots lengthwise into uniform strips, as having them the same size will help them cook evenly.

2. Rinse the shoots and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover with water and add the salt. Bring the water to a full boil over high heat and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the shoots until the thickest piece can be easily pierced with a paring knife, about 15 min­utes for frozen winter shoots and about 30 minutes for fresh; spring bamboo shoots will sometimes take much longer, as the bases are particularly hard. (Remember, bamboo is used for things like furniture and flooring, so you’re sometimes faced with cooking young wood.) Drain, rinse with cool tap water, and drain again in a colander. Allow the shoots to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least a couple of hours to chill them completely.
A split spring bamboo shoot

3. Just before serving, clean and dry the optional lettuce leaves and arrange them on a serving plate. Mound the chilled bamboo shoots on top of the lettuce and drizzle them with your mayonnaise.

Tips

When it comes to bamboo shoots, there are two basic kinds available in the United States at present: chūnsŭn 春筍 (“spring bamboo shoots”) and dōngsŭn 冬筍 (“winter bamboo shoots”). Spring bamboo shoots are long and thin, while winter bamboo shoots are short and chubby. Spring shoots are grassier and more delicate, and so should be cooked gently. Winter shoots are heavier in texture and great for braises.

Select fresh shoots that are firm all over; the sheaths should have no sign of mold or mildew. If the tips are not green, it means that the shoot was harvested while it was still underground and it’s likely that its sugars have not had a chance to turn bitter. Look for shoots that have freshly cut bases; shrinkage around the bases tells you that the shoots are drying out. Store these in the refrigerator in their sheaths and use as quickly as possible. Peel and blanch them if you need to keep them a while longer. Frozen ones keep well, but they should be used before they get freezer burn.
Ready to cook

Spring bamboo shoots will almost always be frozen during their shipment, which of course helps to keep them from rotting on their long ocean voyage, and so they are not really and truly fresh, but this is as close as we can get right now to the genuine article. What this means to you as a shopper is that you should gently (and most likely surreptitiously) squeeze the shoots as you pick them up. Discard any that feel at all mushy.

While you are doing that, inspect the bases and the tips. The tips should still be more or pointed, which means that they weren’t banged around a whole lot during their processing. The bases ought to look and feel hard. You will see a bit of drying out, which is normal, but press on the flat bottoms to see whether they have softened up, as this will indicate a hard freeze that broke down the cells. This generally can be trimmed off, but it is wasteful.
Accept no substitutes

Another way to prepare your bamboo shoots is to cook them in salted, defatted chicken stock. If you like, you can season the stock with rice wine, ginger, and green onions. The bamboo shoots will be much more flavorful this way, and they won’t need any garnish.

Hunt down Japanese Kewpie brand mayonnaise for this and all other Chinese dishes that call for mayo. It has a richer flavor with a tiny piquant edge smoothed with a bit of sugar. It is also packed with things like MSG, but oh well, it tastes really good.

If you would prefer more of a punch in your dish, mix the Kewpie with some Sriracha hot sauce to your favorite degree of hellishness and then toss the bamboo shoots with it. This goes really great with cold beer. Just saying.