Monday, October 12, 2015

Guilin rice noodles

Today’s dish combines last week’s braised beef shanks with pickles in what has to be one of the most sublime pairings I’ve ever enjoyed. What’s more, the main components of this noodle soup – namely the braised beef and the pickled long beans – can be either store-bought or made at home long in advance, which means that this is a really easy recipe to pull together.

I would, of course, strongly urge you to make both of these yourself. Like I already showed you, these Muslim-style shanks are simply divine and can be cooked with very little effort. The pickled green beans are super easy, too, if you already have a crock filled with the aromatic brine from traditional Sichuan-style pickles that we explored a couple of years ago. This traditional way to ferment pickles has become one of the most popular recipes I’ve ever posted on this blog, and I really urge you to get a crock going in your kitchen ASAP.
After three weeks in a delicious brine

It’s hard to describe just how tasty these beans are, but here goes: While commercial ones may be dully green, soft, and sour, these homemade ones posses a much brighter olive color, are gently crispy, and have a lovely range of flavors hiding inside their skins - juices that squish out onto your tongue with each bite and turn this simple street snack into what might easily become an addiction. Of course, if you don't have a nice bunch of these at the ready, just about any other crunchy green Chinese pickle will do, including the cabbage in that main Sichuan recipe or even Shanghai mustard pickles.

Many classic Guangxi dishes as prepared in the bigger cities and lowlands combine local ingredients with Cantonese techniques, but the cuisine does an about-face as one moves into higher altitudes, for it ends up looking and tasting much more like the cooking of its northwestern neighbor, Guizhou. 

Fresh long beans ready for the crock
This is most likely the one dish that the beautiful city of Guilin is most famous for among the Chinese, and pork is the usual meat component here, but those braised shanks work like a dream, too.

So, if you have the ingredients mentioned here already made, you can have a steaming bowl of noodles in a flash.

Guilin rice noodles
Guìlín mĭfěn 桂林米粉 
Serves 2
Thin slices of braised beef shin

1 pound fresh rice noodles
Boiling water as needed
½ cup (or so) pickled long beans, or other pickled vegetables, chopped and rinsed with boiling water
10 (or so) thin slices braised beef shank, plus some of the braising sauce
Large handful of coarsely chopped cilantro
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
Finely ground chile peppers, to taste
¼ cup fried soybeans or peanuts

1. Place the rice noodles in a wide colander and separate them as much as possible. Put the colander in the sink and run boiling water over them. Shake the colander to fluff up the noodles, and then divide them between two large soup bowls.

Fresh rice noodles & green onions
2. Arrange the beef slices and pickles on top of the noodles and drizzle in about ¼ cup of the braising liquid. Pour enough boiling water into each bowl so that about an inch of the noodles is peeking out. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Divide the cilantro and green onions among the bowls, and sprinkle on some ground chili pepper, if you like. Toss and eat.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Beijing Hui Muslim classic: beef shanks & eggs

Beijing’s Hui Muslim dishes are without a doubt some of my favorite in the region. Much of this has to do with the creative ways in which every bit of an animal is used. In the West, we tend to toss out the less popular parts of an animal, but that is not the case in China. Not only are Chinese cooks frugal – which they most definitely are – but they also appreciate the intriguing textures that the heart, stomach, and shin have to offer.

These variety meats are the kind of things that every single Beijing-style Muslim eatery I’ve ever eaten in offers. If they are a small, family-run place, they will display them right in the front window, the same way Cantonese delis hang ducks and pigs near the sidewalk. The flavors are rich and savory, and based on a spice-infused marinade that is colored by soy sauce and slightly sweetened with rock sugar.

Edible stained glass window
Depending on what time of day it is and how hot it is outside, we might have a plate full of cool, braised liver, tendons, heart, tripe, and so forth to start off a meal. Or perhaps a breakfast sandwich of tender, braised shin shaved into paper-thin slices and packed into a sesame-paste biscuit, or shaobing. Dinner might include some eggs, bean curd, and thick seaweed cooked in that same braising liquid, as well. Alongside this, we would usually order some millet porridge and a plate of stir-fried greens.

Beef shins are a cut of meat that really deserves your love. They’re cheap, nothing but completely edible, and are ribboned with thin tendons that turn into translucent, tender codas between the gorgeous meat. I mean, look at that photo above and tell me that isn’t drop-dead beautiful.

These shins will be soft and as relaxed as a kitten when they are raw – see the photo below. As soon as they hit hot water, though, they will shrink up into tense little balls and stay that way, so don’t worry about crowding your pan at the very beginning. This shrinkage is due to the tendons, which will become incredibly hard at this point and only dissolve into a delectable gumminess after a slow braise.
Raw tendons

I get my beef shins at a Chinese market in Oakland that sells them in sets of six or so in plastic bags, so that is what I’ve gotten used to as my basic measure. However, there’s nothing stopping you from dividing the recipe in half or less, or even multiplying it a couple of times for parties. Be sure a make the braised eggs with this fabulous sauce after you pluck out the beef – they are just as delicious as the shins.

Braised beef shanks and eggs
Lŭ níujiàn, lŭ dàn 滷牛腱、滷蛋
Serves 8 to 12
Beautiful beautiful beautiful

6 boneless beef shins 
Water, as needed
½ cup thinly sliced ginger 
4 green onions 
6 tablespoons regular soy sauce 
4 star anise 
½ stick cinnamon 
1 tablespoon fennel seeds 
2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns 
¼ cup rock sugar, or ½ piece of brown slab sugar 
2 dried Thai chilies, optional 
1 piece cured tangerine peel, optional 
1 cup rice wine, optional 

12 to 18 small to medium eggs, boiled until firm (see directions below) and peeled

To serve:
Thinly sliced green onions
Toasted sesame oil

1. Place the shins in a wide pot, cover them with water, bring the water to a boil over high heat, lower the heat, simmer the meats for about 10 minutes, and then dump out the water. Rinse the scum off of the meat and the pan.

2. Return the meats to the pan, and add all of the ingredients up through the optional rice wine, as well as enough water to cover the meats. Bring the pan to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the shins until they can easily be pierced with a chopstick, about 3 hours. You can also make these in a pressure cooker: braise on high for about an hour. Remove the shins to a bowl, cool, and then refrigerate them for easier slicing.
Ready for the braise

3. Add the peeled eggs to the strained sauce. Bring the uncovered pan to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and slowly simmer the eggs for an hour or two, adding only as much water as needed to keep them more or less submerged. Cool the eggs and sauce to room temperature and let them sit in the sauce for at least two days so that the flavors really permeate the eggs.

4. To serve, slice the shanks crosswise (against the grain) into really thin slices. Fan these out onto a plate or a bowl of hot noodles. Cut the eggs into wedges. Drizzle them with a bit of the sauce, if you like, or simply a bit of toasted sesame oil and a sprinkle of green onions. 

How to correctly boil eggs

Prick the round ends with a sharp pin or tack, as this gives that bubble of air inside the shell an escape route and so prevent the eggs from cracking.

Braised eggs - tan down to the yolks
Place the eggs in a pot of warm water, and bring the water to a boil over high heat, stirring the eggs very often as they come to a boil so that the yolks become centered in the whites. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook them for about 8 minutes. Dump out the water, cover them with cool tap water, and then peel them when they have cooled down.

Whenever you make hard-boiled eggs for recipes like this, look for two things: the smallest eggs possible, and eggs that are not too fresh. Smaller eggs absorb the sauce’s flavors faster, while older eggs are easier to peel. Also, if you gently stir the eggs as they are coming to a boil, you will keep the yolks centered in the still-soft whites; once the water barely comes to a boil, the whites will have set and you can stop stirring. Never boil the eggs at full blast, though, as this will make the whites tough. A gentle simmer is enough – they will also be cooked in the sauce, so there’s no need to overdo it. When cooking hardboiled eggs, keep the lid off, otherwise pressure will build up in the pan and the egg whites will have a honeycomb texture.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Chinese white liquor - brews you'll want to enjoy

A good Chinese supermarket will generally offer an intimidating wall of bottles fill with booze. 

If they're organized, at one side will be the rice wines, another edge will contain grape wines, and somewhere in there will be the stuff called “white liquor” - that last one is what we’re going to look at today. Other grocery stores like to make things as difficult as possible, as can be seen in these photos, where rice wines are jumbled in with the white liquors, perhaps just to make things interesting.

Hard alcohol is very different in China from the rest of the world. It is referred to in English as white liquor, which is a direct translation of the Chinese name: báijǐu 白酒, although some refer to these spirits as báigār 白乾兒 after an old variety traditionally made in Hebei. Except for a few varieties seasoned with herbs or other additives, these are almost always clear, hence their name.
Shaoxing wine (L) & white liquors

White liquor is beloved as a cooking ingredient for the elusive flavors it lends to certain dishes, like smoked chicken, although the better ones are of course meant to be reserved for appreciative sipping. These are best served neat at room temperature in wide small porcelain bowls similar to the cups used for rice wine, as this allows their aromas to be fully enjoyed. But then again, this is hard liquor — most of these spirits are 80 to 120 proof — and so they are in many ways more akin to vodka than the much milder rice wines of China.

These strong distilled spirits are mainly fermented out of cooked sorghum, wheat, barley, Job’s tears, sticky rice, or even millet, with other ingredients like dried peas, therapeutic herbs, or even flowers occasionally lending unique aromas and flavors to the brew. As with rice wines’ classifications, the names suggest the best pairings for these white liquors, for alcohol is meant — as always in China — to be enjoyed with complementary bar snacks. 
Two sorghum liquors

Do note that the English on the labels will be of varying levels of helpfulness, as sometimes old names are used, while other wing it, as can be seen in the photo to the right, which gives Gaoliang as "Kao Liang Chiew" and Fenjiu as "Fen Chiew." When in doubt, show a clerk the Chinese characters for the liquor you'd like to try.

A good white liquor to try first is Guizhou’s Maotai, whose heavy “sauce aroma” (jiàngxiāng 醬香) is formed by its pronounced ester compounds; this is what allows it to stand up to heavily seasoned foods. It's powerful stuff, but really worth getting to know on a personal basis. Pair it with any of the Central Highlands' spicy and numbing foods. 

Sweeter dishes would pair better with something like Wuliangye of Sichuan and its “strong aroma” (nóngxiāng 濃香), while more delicate ones would be complemented by the “light aroma” (qīngxiāng 清香) of something like Shanxi’s ancient Fenjiu.

There is also the “rice aroma” (mǐxiāng 米香) of white spirits brewed from rice, as well as white liquors with a sugary “honey aroma” (fēngxiāng 蜂香) and even the more complex brews boasting of a “layered aroma” (jiānxiāng 兼香).

Meant for sipping
Because these are clear spirits, the main difference among the seemingly endless varieties is whether they are seasoned in some way. Unflavored ones rely on the aroma of the grains and pulses used in their distillation to create their unique flavors. Others, though, go in the opposite direction and tickle the senses in different ways. For example, Meiguilu (“rose dew”) is a floral variety that works well as a seasoning in a number of dishes, particularly such rich sweets as moon cakes, where it adds an almost indefinable whiff of roses.

One of the most famous of China’s heady alcoholic brews is made in Gansu: Ng Ka Py. A type of sorghum white lightning flavored with a member of the ivy family, this is the drink that John Steinbeck in East of Eden described as having the taste of “good rotten apples.”

Of course, not everyone wants to have hard liquor with a meal. In that case, I'd always suggest a good, chilled beer - it is a perfect match for most of China's savory dishes.  

Friday, September 25, 2015

The autumn moon on your plate

My first year in Taiwan, I was more than a bit confused by the Moon Festival. Called the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhongqiujie) in Chinese, this lands in the exact middle of fall according to the lunar calendar, a date that according to our Western calendar just barely makes it into the beginning of autumn. 

So, first of all, the end of September or early October didn't seem like the middle of anything. And the celebrations were so foreign to my tastes... just wandering around in the evening, enjoying the full moon with a stuffed pastry. Okay, I did understand the pastry part (who wouldn't?), but looking at the moon was just weird to me back then. I had rarely even noticed the moon before Taiwan, except of course when it did something particularly remarkable, like disappear in an eclipse.

But that is one of the things I love about Chinese culture: the appreciation of everyday miracles. Like the moon. 

Now she's part of my life in so many ways, and I always know exactly what phase she's in. (And yes, the moon is most definitely a girl. I'll get to that later.) I like to look for her whenever I get up at night, checking to see how she's doing and enjoying her most when she's round and full and bathing the hills with a white light. 
Mmmmm, eggs

The Chinese believe that you can see the face of Chang'e there, who secretly tasted her husband's elixir of immortality and then fled his wrath by escaping to the moon. Others see an osmanthus (sweet olive) tree when the dark areas are at the top of the moon. And of course there's the rabbit pounding out more of that elixir in a mortar, which is why rabbits are part of the Moon Festival celebrations, too, and you'll see them scampering over wrapping paper, boxes of the Chinese filled pastries known as moon cakes, and prancing on depictions of the moon.

There's not a whole lot of other foods traditionally associated with the Moon Festival, but I'd like to change that. This one in particular should be a big hit: the poetic Clouds Covering the Mid-Autumn Moon. Based on a recipe from one of my absolute favorite Cantonese food writers, Jiang Xianzhu, this is a deliciously simple way with eggs that even kids will love. You can make this as simple or as fancy as you like, tailoring it to fit your menu and your guests.

Ms. Jiang recommends topping this with just light soy sauce, some warmed-up oil, and a sprinkling of both thinly sliced green onions and some cilantro. And the eggs are quite good that way. But I like to tinker with the classics, and have found that this is the perfect canvas for a wide variety of embellishments.
Silky, savory custard

One of the best uses either chopped flower mushrooms or tiny dried shrimp. You can, of course, use diced poultry or meat, fresh shrimp, or whatever else strikes your fancy. But little in life brings such consistent pleasure to my palate as those flower mushrooms, and I never seem to get enough funk on my plate, so those teeny shrimp are a close second place.

This Sunday (September 27) is the Moon Festival. So, steam a bowl of these gloriously silky eggs for a late dinner, take it by a window or sit out on the porch, and spoon in these luxurious eggs while smiling back at Chang'e.

Clouds covering the mid-autumn moon 
Yún gài Zhōngqīu yuè 雲蓋中秋月 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, 2 to 3 as a main dish

4 large, really fresh, organic, free-range eggs
2 cups cool water
1 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 soaked flower mushrooms, or 3 tablespoons tiny dried shrimp
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 green onion, trimmed and thinly sliced

1. Place a trivet in a wide pot and fill the pot with just enough water that it is about an eighth of an inch below the top of the trivet; this will keep the eggs silky by not overheating the bottom of the dish. 
Cover your steamer

2. Beat the eggs lightly and add both the water and salt. Beat them a bit more and then pour the liquid through a strainer into a shallow heatproof 4-cup dish with a rim. Cover the dish with foil and place it the trivet. (This foil will keep the water and steam out of the eggs, as this will also help with the texture.) Cover the pot and bring it to a boil, and then immediately lower the heat so that it barely simmers. Steam the eggs for about 10 to 12 minutes. Check to see whether the eggs are done by lifting up the edge of the foil; gently shake the dish to make sure that the center is solid. However, don't overcook the eggs, as they will get bubbly and spongy around the edges

3. While the eggs are steaming, prepare the sauce. If you are using the mushrooms, trim off the stems and cut the caps into a fine dice. If you are using the shrimp, place them in a strainer and rinse them with cold water to remove most of the salt, then wrap them in a paper towel to sop off the moisture.

4. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat and add either the mushrooms or shrimp. Adjust the heat as needed, stir-frying them gently so that they barely brown and crisp up. Add the oyster sauce and rice wine, stir a few times, and taste, adjusting the seasoning as needed. Pour the sauce over the steamed eggs and sprinkle with the onions. Serve immediately, allowing your guests to spoon the eggs onto their rice.