Monday, March 23, 2015

Cookies that taste like an ocean breeze

One of my favorite local cookies when I lived in Taiwan was flavored with sea moss. I know, that doesn't sound like the most tantalizing flavor in the world, but the sea moss brought with it a faint echo of the sea, a salty edge that cut what would have otherwise been the one-note sweetness of a run-of-the-mill packaged cookie. But I'm a confirmed sucker for anything that contrasts two or more tastes, and this cookie fit my nascent foodie predilections to a T.

These cookies can still occasionally be found on this side of the Pacific, but they were never as good as I remembered. Maybe it was just being in Taipei that seasoned these thin wafers, or maybe my palate was changing. Whatever it was, I knew I had to find another way to satisfy my cravings. 

What I ended up with is this, a buttery cookie that really is an unabashed moss green. And in addition to its gorgeous color, the saltiness and delectable aroma of the main ingredient are highlighted with no hesitation here. This is basically a shortbread cookie (there I go showing my Scot roots again), with butter providing the crumbly texture and subtle richness instead of the vegetable shortening in the crispy original, so I call my creation Sea Moss Sandies.

Sea moss
Sea moss, or taitiao (literally, moss strands), is becoming more and more common in Chinese groceries nowadays, so look for it next time you check out an Asian grocery; it will probably be near the dried seaweeds. One 5-ounce package will be the perfect amount for this recipe.

When you open the package, it will look for all the world like you have a couple hanks of green hair. I've found that the best way to deal with this is to toss the whole bunch into a food processor and then pulse away until the sea moss is broken down into little shards. You then can proceed to make the rest of the cookie dough in the processor, so this ends up taking no more than a few minutes to put together and a minimum of fuss.
Serve the cookies with hot green tea, maybe with a side of fruit and an ocean breeze. 

Sea moss sandies 
Táitiào suū  苔條酥
Makes 7 to 8 dozen cookies

1 (5 ounce) package sea moss (taitiao)
2 cups Chinese flour, or 1½ cups all-purpose flour plus ½ cup pastry flour
½ cup powdered sugar, plus more, if desired
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

The crumbly dough
1. Start this recipe at least an hour before you wish to serve the cookies. 

2. Pull the sea moss apart into manageable strands and place them in a food processor equipped with a metal blade. Pulse the sea moss until it has been coarsely chopped. Add the flour and powdered sugar, and then turn the food processor on so that the sea moss becomes finely ground. Add the butter and pulse the mixture until the dough forms a crumbly mass.

3. Divide the dough in two and place each one on a sheet of plastic wrap. Then, form each half into a smooth log a little over an inch in diameter. Wrap the logs in the plastic wrap and either roll them up in Silpat baking sheets or place them in paper towel tubes, as this will help keep the dough's shape. (If you have neither, roll the dough again on a flat board just before cutting it to make it as round as possible.) Freeze the dough for about an hour to make it easier to slice.

4. Heat the oven to 350°F. Cut the dough into ¼-inch slices. Place them about one inch apart on baking sheets lined with Silpat or parchment paper.

Pretty darned exciting, for a cookie
5. Bake the cookies for about 12 to 15 minutes until the edges are golden; rotate the sheets halfway through the baking time. Cool the cookies on the Silpat or parchment paper before removing them. If you wish, dust the cookies with a little more powdered sugar before serving.

6. Store the cookies in an airtight container; freeze for longer storage. They taste best after they have cooled off, as they will be crispier and the sea moss flavor will start to bloom.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A brilliantly simple pickle from Shanghai

Jackson Street in San Francisco's Chinatown used to have a little hole-in-the-wall call the Star Cafe.  

It was my kind of place. Star Cafe was only wide enough to squeeze in the semblance of a kitchen in on the right, run a counter down the middle, and stuff a couple of worn tables and chairs in the back.

The toilet was a creaky affair in the far corner that didn't invite anyone to sit and read the paper, and it was obviously treasured more as a place to stash wet mops, extra to-go boxes, and extra chairs than it was as a restroom.

But what this little dive lacked in refinement, it more than made up for in flavor and price. These folks really were from Shanghai, they cooked what they knew, and we would usually stroll out of there completely stuffed for under ten bucks. Not many places in The City have that type of reputation.

What I really loved there were its Shanghai Mustard Pickles. A huge glass jar of them would be perched in their old cooler, the pickles kept crisp and cold, just the way I wanted them. We'd order a bowl of them to munch on while we perused the menu, and I'd usually commandeer the lion's portion of the pickles before washing them down with a glass of cold, sweetened soybean milk that was also homemade. 

One day when we tromped over there for another meal, we found the doors locked and a sign on them saying the owners were away on a trip to China. That trip turned into years while the storefront stayed empty, and I longed in vain for my pickles, as no one else I knew every offered them. Then, one fine day I ran across a recipe for Mustard Stems Pickled in Sweet Rice Vinegar in the wonderful Bruce Cost book Asian Ingredients. With a little tweaking, his pickles soon turned into the ones in my dreams. (Thanks, Bruce!)

This recipe calls for a Chinese vegetable called - depending upon the grocery store - gay choy, jie cai, or Chinese mustard cabbage. It's a slightly bitter vegetable that's great in a stir-fry with nothing else but lots of ginger and a healthy sprinkling of kosher salt. But it's in this pickle that this variety of mustard greens really shines. That gentle mustardy fragrance and flavor poke their way out from the sweet brine and spices, and they are strong enough to stand up to some brutal treatment, like being salted and having boiling vinegar poured over them. Make up a batch and store it in the refrigerator. If you like sausages, try stir-frying them with sliced onions and this pickle for a piquant and utterly divine dish.

Shanghai mustard pickles 

Tángcù jiècài 糖醋芥菜
Makes about 1 quart

5 medium heads of Chinese mustard cabbage
2 tablespoons sea salt
4 cups sushi vinegar (usually called "seasoned rice vinegar")
8 dried chili peppers
5 crushed cloves of garlic
10 thin slices of ginger
Boiling water, as needed

1. Trim off any flimsy leaves from the mustard cabbage and reserve them for some other use. Cut the stems into 2- to 3-inch lengths and then cut each length into pieces no more than 1/2 an inch wide. Rinse the mustard cabbage carefully, shake dry, and place it in a colander. Sprinkle the salt over the vegetables, lightly rub the salt in, and let them sit for an hour or so to remove most of the excess water.

2. Clean a quart-sized glass jar and lid, making sure that there's no oil or soap residue in there, as this could cause the pickles to mold. Rinse the jar and lid with boiling water and turn them upside-down to drain.

3. Bring the vinegar to a boil in a medium saucepan along with the peppers, garlic, and ginger; let the brine simmer for a few minutes. Shake the excess salt and water off of the mustard cabbage and place it in the glass jar. Pour the boiling brine over the vegetables and toss them lightly; add a bit of boiling water so that it almost reaches the top of the vegetables. Stir the vegetables every 5 minutes or so as they cool so that all of them turn from an emerald green to an olive shade. As they turn color, they'll shrink, and the brine should soon cover the vegetables. Add a bit more water as needed to keep the vegetables submerged.

4. When the jar is cool, refrigerate it for at least two days. Use a very clean pair of chopsticks or fork to remove the pickles. They'll last at least a month if kept clean and cold.

Illustration from ALL UNDER HEAVEN (McSweeney's, 2015)
Copyright 2015, Carolyn Phillips

Monday, March 9, 2015

A delicious postcard from Chaozhou

Chaozhou is rarely considered one of the great cuisines of China, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why. It's also relatively unknown, which I find even more insane, considering how this is probably the home of some of the best seafood in the world. 

It is so good that even though Hong Kong's cuisine is nothing short of spectacular, back when I was still a student and would head for Hong Kong for my vacations, I would always hunt out their best Chaozhou restaurants in order to devour some of the most perfectly fried oysters and steamed fish that have ever left a chef's kitchen.

Angled silk gourds
Chaozhou (aka Teochew or Chiuchow) is located in the northeastern reaches of Guangdong province, just a stone or two's throw from Fujian, and bordering the areas where the Hakka people call home. One bite of this food and you'll taste all of these influences... or it could be that you are tasting Chaozhou's remarkable flavors in the dishes of its neighbors. I could easily wax ecstatic for hours over the food of this area that is so dominated by the sea that its Chinese name means "land of the tides," or 潮州. 

It is understandable, then, that most Chinese folks think of seafood when Chaozhou is mentioned, and we certainly will continue to stroll through some of their more delicious fish and crustacean dishes in this blog, but today I wanted to introduce a vegetable that seems to have received more serious attention in Chaozhou than anyplace else: silk gourds.

One variety of the silk gourds is most commonly known in the West in its dried form, where only the fibrous interior remains: loofah (or luffa) sponges.  But when these squashes are still tender, they are absolutely delicious and are wonderful simply stir-fried with little more than a bit of garlic, salt, and rice wine to bring out their natural sweetness. 

(By the way, they’re not really gourds, but the Chinese character gua got translated into “melon,” “squash,” or “gourd” pretty much on some translator’s whim many, many years ago, so don’t take any of these three translations too seriously. And someone else got into the act and started calling silk gourds "Chinese okra," which just makes a confusing situation even more of a mess.)

Fried 'til crispy
These squashes come in two forms: smooth and ridged. The smooth ones, or loofah, seem to have a shorter growing period around here and are most usually found in summer. The ridged ones, sometimes called shenggua 勝瓜 in Chinese and "angled gourds" in English, are often displayed in Chinese groceries pretty much year around. 

These two varieties taste identical as far as I’m concerned, and they receive the same treatment: just before cooking them, they are peeled, the ends are cut off, and the meat is cut into whatever shape required. However, the squash does turn dark very quickly in the same way that eggplant does, so prepare them only a few minutes before they’re to be thrown into the pan, or else steam or microwave or parboil them in order to keep them white. 

In Chaozhou, silk gourds are given a special treatment that I haven’t seen anywhere else, which is that they are fried into crêpes with a handful of tasty condiments that play havoc with your taste buds.  Fried peanuts and dried salted radish bits are tossed with thin slices of the squash and then mixed into a simple crepe batter that is then fried until golden.  This is terrific as is, but if you don’t have access to silk gourds, peeled zucchini or other summer squash will yield almost as good a dish as the original.

The frying of the sliced squash is rather tedious since there is so much of it that you need to do it in many batches, so use the largest frying pan that you have (or two, if you can juggle it), and work on prepping the rest of your ingredients while the squash is frying away.  Then, use a smaller pan - about 7 inches in diameter - to fry the crepes.

Crispy silk gourd crêpes 
Cuìzhá sīguā jiān  脆炸絲瓜煎 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multi-course meal
The ingredients

4 small or 2 large silk gourds (between 2½ and 3 pounds total), or about 20 ounces summer squash
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying
¼ cup salted, dried radish (caipu 菜脯), preferably already chopped (see Tip)
½ cup fried peanuts
½ cup sweet potato flour (best), or cornstarch if you absolutely can't find sweet potato flour
2 large eggs
½ cup cool water, or as needed
6 Chinese chives or 2 green onions, sliced thinly
2 teaspoons fish sauce (or light soy sauce if you want this to be vegetarian)
4 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
Freshly ground pepper
A small sprinkle of salt
Small amount of cilantro, chopped, for garnish

1. Peel the silk gourd and remove the seeds if they are at all tough, as well as the stem and flower ends. Pour about 3 tablespoons of the oil in the largest flat frying pan you have and heat it over medium-high heat. Slice the squash thinly, and place one layer of the slices into the hot oil. Fry both sides of the squash until golden (adding more oil as needed) and remove to a small work bowl; repeat with the rest of the squash until all of it has been fried. You should end up with about 2 cups cooked squash.

2. Rinse the salted radish in a sieve and shake it dry. Chop the peanuts until they are in small pieces (less than ¼ inch across), which should be about the same size as the chopped salted radish. Mix the sweet potato flour with the egg and the water to form a batter with the consistency of heavy cream. Add the peanuts, radish, and fried squash to the batter, as well as the green onion, fish sauce, sugar, roasted sesame oil, and pepper. 

3. Heat about 3 tablespoons of the oil in a 7-inch flat frying pan over medium-high heat until a couple drops of the batter immediately sizzle and start to brown. Ladle a quarter of the batter into the pan so that it completely covers the bottom. Shake the pan after about 20 seconds to loosen the crêpe, and then turn it over when the underside is a golden brown; if you are a bit nervous about flipping the crêpe, slide it onto a plate with the raw side up and then flip the plate over onto the frying pan.  

4. Brown the other side and remove the cooked crêpe to a clean cutting board. (If you are like me and prefer the crêpe to have more crisp exterior, feel free to fry both sides until they are a dark brown; the texture will be most noticeable once the crêpes cool off a bit.) Repeat this with the rest of the batter until all of it has been fried. (The crêpes can be made ahead of time up to this point and reheated in a 325 degree F oven until crispy right before serving.)

5. Slice the crêpes into 4 to 6 wedges each and serve garnished with the cilantro. 


Salted radish is often translated as "salted turnip" on the package.

Get the Vietnamese fish sauce with the pink label and three blue crabs on it. I've used that for decades, and it's always good.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Northwestern roasted fish for the New Year

It's still Chinese New Year, and one of the most important things you can serve at a meal during these two weeks is fish. If you are preparing this next year for New Year's Eve, you should leave at least half of it for the following evening's dinner, along with the words "nian nian you yu" 年年有餘. What this means is "may every year have plenty." And you say that because "plenty" in Chinese sounds just like "fish" ( ). 

The Chinese invariably include the head and the tail, as these represent wishes that run from the beginning to the end of the year. Besides, they're awfully tasty.
Crispy cumin & juicy jalapeños

In the desert areas, freshwater fish is traditionally barbecued in a way that resembles Xinjiang-Style Lamb Kebabs: The fish is butterflied, seasoned, and then skewered on long, thin sticks. Because fish are more delicate, though, these are angled a short distance from the fire so that they cook more slowly. 

You can achieve something very similar if you roast the fish in a hot oven, as the olive oil crisps up the skin. I like the way that the cumin turns into crunchy bits that contrast perfectly with the juicy flesh. You can, of course, also barbecue this over a small amount of coals that are covered in white ash.
Butterfly body, then flatten head

Northwestern roasted fish
Xīnjiāng kǎoyú 新疆烤魚
Serves 4
1 whole mild fish (about 1 pound), like branzino, grass carp, bass, or tilapia
¾ teaspoon sea salt
Spray oil
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
2 teaspoons whole cumin
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 red jalapeño peppers, seeded and finely chopped

1. Heat the oven to 500°F, or its highest setting. Scale, gut, and clean the fish, and remove the gills. Slash the sides in the “willow leaf” pattern (page TK). If you like, remove the bones (or have your fishmonger do this). Butterfly it by opening up the fish completely along the belly—lay it with all the skin facing you so that you can flatten the fish by pressing along its backbone. Massage the salt into both sides of the fish and let it marinate for around 10 minutes.
Ready to go

2. Oil a broiler pan. Rub some olive oil on both sides of the fish, and try to hit every spot. Lay the fish flesh side up and sprinkle it with half of the cumin, garlic, and chili peppers. Roast the fish for about 8 minutes, or until the flesh is starting to brown. Remove the fish, turn it over, drizzle a bit more olive oil over the skin, and sprinkle it with the rest of the cumin and chili peppers. Roast it for another 10 minutes, or so, until the skin is golden and crispy. Plate the fish and pour the drippings from the broiler pan over the fish.

Monday, February 23, 2015

New Year cake as approved by Mr. Enzo

Last Thursday was the first day of the Year of the Ram, and homemade sweets are definitely in order for this two week celebration. Some tasty candied almonds might be the perfect offering for family and friends, or perhaps a plate of laughing doughnut holes. The main point is that people should have a wonderful time, and food always is important to achieving that, at least in our home.

One of our favorite New Year sweets is this, a Cantonese steamed cake that is lightly sweet and takes all of about 5 minutes to put together. This fluffy confection looks very much like an English sponge cake, so my guess that Chinese cooks transmogrified a European recipe to fit local tastes, for soy sauce gives the cake its rich color and a subtle suggestion of xianwei to this dim sum teahouse classic.

Never content to let good enough alone, I was tweaking this recipe lately, trying to make it perfect with just the right balance of sweet-salty-creamy, and so I ended up with a whole bunch of different takes on this recipe. The last two contenders were submitted to our resident food critic, 20-month-old Mr. Enzo, who declared this one the winner in the accompanying video.

Not only that, but when reviewing this short film, he said “好吃!” (Delicious!) – and I am proud to say that this was the first time he ever said that – as he recalled his meal. My favorite part in the clip is when he lingers over the two versions before settling on the pale cake. Yes, the boy has taste.

Malay Sponge Cake
Mǎlāgāo 馬拉糕
Beat eggs until light
Guangdong and Hong Kong
Serves 8

Spray oil
2 large eggs, room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
7 tablespoons milk (whole or low fat)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 cup cake flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder

1. Heat the water under a steamer to boiling, then reduce the heat to low. Spray an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan with oil and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Steam until done

2. Use a hand mixer to whisk the eggs until light and airy, and then slowly beat in the sugar, oil, milk, vanilla, and soy sauce. In a separate bowl toss together the flour and baking powder, then beat this into the egg mixture until the batter is smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and steam the cake for around 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan, then remove it and cut it into wedges.