Monday, September 19, 2016

Deep-fried rice batons

To be honest, I haven’t a clue as to why something this simple and elegant and delicious is such a secret. It is just steamed rice cut into batons and fried. That’s it. But it’s also so much more, like mochi on steroids, and it’s something that I easily could (and do) dream about at night.

But when my friend Dianne Jacob mentioned this lovely way with rice to me recently, there was a happy look in her eye as she recalled the exact same dish her mother used to make for her. The daughter of Iraqi Jews, her parents and grandparents had lived in the free port of Shanghai before and after World War II. What Casablanca was to the West, Shanghai was to the East: a place where refugees and those who just wanted a bit of peace in their lives sought as a new home as they settled down and tried to achieve a touch normalcy.
Good rice is fresh rice

Dianne's mother obviously loved Shanghai because she wore Chinese clothes the rest of her life while dining on kosher Chinese. And you really can't blame her for finding joy and comfort in a dish like this, for it's one of those ingenious little things that make complete sense once you try them. Why we don't deep-fry rice on a regular basis is anybody's guess. 

You see, the outside is crunchy and hot, while the inside is creamy and faintly sweet. Dust these with a bit of sugar and a few sesame seeds or crushed peanuts for your morning treat. Doughnuts will never again look as good.

Actually, I could eat these all day.

Deep-fried rice batons
Zīfàn’gāo 粢飯糕
Shanghai and Jiangsu
Serves 8
Cut into batons

2 cups / 400 g sticky rice (brown or white), or use half white jasmine rice and half white short-grain sticky rice
3 cups / 700 ml water
Spray oil
2 cups / 470 ml peanut or vegetable oil (use ok if it smells fresh)
White sugar, optional
Toasted sesame seeds or ground peanuts, optional

1. Rinse the rice in a sieve under running water, drain, and place them in a saucepan. Add the water, bring the saucepan to a full boil, cover, and simmer it on low for about 20 minutes, or until all of the water has been absorbed. Turn off the heat and let the pan sit for around 10 minutes so that the rice can continue to steam. (If you have a rice cooker, follow the manufacturer’s directions for making 6 cups cooked rice.)

2. Spray an 8-inch / 20 cm square pan with oil. Pat the warm rice into the pan, even it out, and press down lightly on it so that the rice sticks together without any air pockets. Cover the pan and chill overnight.

3. The next day, empty the pan out onto a cutting board. Slice the rice crosswise in half and then lengthwise into 16 even batons. Have a plate ready covered with tempura or parchment paper; paper towels will stick.

Fry on both sides
4. Pour the oil into a skillet and place it over high heat. When a chopstick inserted in the oil becomes covered with bubbles, add as many of the batons as will loosely fit (or as many as you plan to immediately eat – whichever is less). Lower the heat to maintain a gentle bubbling around the batons, and carefully flip them over when the bottoms are a golden brown. When both sides have browned, remove to the paper-covered plate to drain. (You can make these as crisp or not as you like - little kids and older people will probably thank you for keeping these on the soft side, but I love these when they crunch and then weld to my molars. As always, to each his/her/its own.) Serve the batons hot with a sprinkle of sugar and some toasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Tips

This recipe can be changed up a million ways to fit your appetite and menu. Consider adding finely chopped ham, ground sea moss or laver seaweed (nori), toasted sesame seeds, minced green onions… whatever appeals to you.

Fragrant brown sticky rice
The rice used here is also a suggestion. Brown sticky rice is perhaps my favorite, since it has a subtly nutty texture and flavor, although I also really like the combination of the sticky rice with jasmine, as the texture remains light thanks to the jasmine rice, but tacky enough to hold together well due to the sticky rice. 

You can vary these as you like, of course, and add or substitute different rices (think Thai black rice and brown sticky rice for starters), with other grains like millet tossed in for variety.

One thing to watch out for is the freshness of the rice. The smell of stale rice will become achingly apparent, since this is all about the perfume and flavor and texture of the rice. Nothing else. Take a big whiff of the rice when you open the bag - it should smell sweet and delicious.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Crispy beef tomato chow mein + great reviews for All Under Heaven

Please check out the insanely wonderful review of All Under Heaven that Paula Forbes wrote for Epicurious. I'm still in a state of shock.

Dianne Jacob posted a lovely interview with moi for her blog, and I'm so delighted with the nice things she has to say. If you want to write a cookbook, please do read her books and blog - they're the best!

Also, Susan Gordon on Signature Reads gave All Under Heaven a big thumbs up. Thank you again, Susan, for  being so kind.

And a reminder: I'll be speaking at the 92nd Street Y and the Smithsonian this week. Hope to see you there!

On to this week's recipe...

* * *

Some folks say this dish comes from Guangzhou, while others insist it’s a Chinese American invention. I really don't know and, to be honest, don’t really care all that much because it is so absolutely delicious and wonderful and easy.

I kind of hesitate to confidently declare this a Chinese American classic because I used to eat it all the time in Taipei back when I was a student. Of course, it could very well be that someone might have brought a similar recipe back from the States. Stranger things have certainly happened in the annals of culinary history. But the Cantonese have a delicious way of pairing beef with tomatoes, usually with a light sweet-and-sour sauce that somehow fuses them together perfectly, along with the usual aromatic fireworks caused by fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions. So, like I say, who knows.

Over the years, I’ve come to make this many ways, but the recipe below is without a doubt my own favorite take. It’s a dish that I tend to reserve for late summer and early autumn, the time when tomatoes can’t get any better. Plus, the weather is still warm enough that a good plate of noodles will satisfy me completely.

These noodles are amazing, by the way. You can find Cantonese egg noodles in most Chinese grocery stores, where they will be perched in a refrigerated case alongside other pastas and chilled breads. Look for thin, light yellow strands – the thinner the better, because then they will fry up into crispy little shards that shatter with each bite.

When you find a package that looks about right, check out the ingredients: there shouldn’t be much more in there than flour and eggs. Avoid noodles that are bright yellow, since that’s usually the mark of food coloring. More and more American-based manufacturers are getting into the noodle-making game, so try to find one that’s made here, as the quality will be better and they will probably be a whole lot fresher. Keep them refrigerated, and use them up as soon as you can, especially if you open up the package.

The one thing that makes this recipe different from most others is that I like to cut the crispy noodle pillow into wedges. If you’ve ever wrestled with this dish in restaurants, you’ll know what I’m trying to avoid, since you want the noodles nice and crispy, but they won’t surrender until they’ve softened in the sauce a bit. I have avoided this problem by whacking them up before the sauce gets poured on top.

If you are serving more than two people, double all of the ingredients. However, if you double the recipe, fry two pillows; if you triple it, make three pillows; and so on. The reason for this is, if you make too large a pillow, it won’t heat through before the bottom burns, so keep this in mind.
 Now's the best time for tomatoes

Now, let’s talk about catsup. I’ve come to like Sir Kensington’s spiced, which has a great balance of flavors and just a hit of chile, but go with what you like. Taste the sauce after you mix it up and then adjust the levels with whatever seems right. The tomatoes will also play a big part in the final flavor spectrum, with sweet ones demanding less sugar, while tarter ones, of course, requiring a touch more. It’s all up to you and what tastes right.

This is a perfect meal in itself.


Crispy beef tomato chow mein
Fānqié níuròu jiānmiàn 蕃茄牛肉煎麵
Guangdong or Chinese American
Serves 2, but can easily be multiplied

Steak:
Around 4 ounces / 110 g boneless steak
1 tablespoon mild rice wine (like Taiwanese Mijiu)
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch
⅛ teaspoon baking soda

Noodles:
2 quarts / 2 liters boiling water
1 teaspoon salt
7 to 8 ounces / 200 to 225 g very thin Cantonese egg noodles (see headnotes)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Around ½ cup peanut or vegetable oil (used all right if it smells fresh)
My farmer's market overfloweth

Sauce:
3 tablespoons catsup (see headnotes)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon sugar, to taste
A little light rice vinegar, if needed

The rest:
8 ounces / 225 g flavorful tomatoes of any kind
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
3 green onions, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal

1. Slice the beef against the grain into thin pieces; the size really doesn’t matter, just make them bite-sized and more or less evenly shaped. Toss the beef in a small work bowl with the rice wine, soy sauce, cornstarch, and baking soda. Allow the beef to marinate while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Bring the water to a boil and add the salt. Shake the noodles into the water and stir them for 20 to 30 seconds (or according to package directions), which will slightly rehydrate them, but you don’t really want them cooked at this point. Pour the water and noodles into a colander set in the sink and immediately run cool water over the noodles, tossing them around so that they stop cooking. Drain in the sink, tossing them now and again when you think of it. Sprinkle on the sesame oil and toss them with this so that they don’t stick together.

3. Mix the sauce ingredients in a small measuring cup; taste and add a bit of rice vinegar, if you think it needs it, but it all depends upon the catsup and Worcestershire sauce. Rinse the tomatoes and cut larger ones into wedges or slice cherry/plum tomatoes in half – again, they should be bite-sized and attractive. Have the other aromatics ready to go in little piles. This recipe can be prepared up to this point and everything refrigerated for up to a day.
Just amazingly good

4. First fry the noodles. Set a wok over medium heat and add the oil. When the oil starts to shimmer, pile the noodles in the center of the wok. Use a wok spatula to corral them into a neat pillow, and then lightly pat the noodles down so that they wind around each other into a firm nest. Fry the noodles and shake the wok a little bit now and then while keeping an eye on them until they are golden on the bottom, which will take around 5 to 10 minutes, depending upon your stove. Flip them over and fry until the second side is also golden, and then slide them out onto a plate. Drain any oil on the plate and all but around ¼ cup / 60 ml of the oil in the wok into a heatproof bowl. Use kitchen shears to cut the crispy noodles into wedges, if you like.

5. Raise the heat under the wok to high. Toss the ginger and garlic in the hot oil for a few seconds, and then add all of the beef. Break apart any lumps and toss the meat now and then so that it sears and caramelizes along the edges. Once that happens, toss in the tomatoes, green onions, and the sauce. Keep tossing until the tomatoes are hot, and then immediately scrape everything on top of the noodles. Serve and then revel in these early days of autumn.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Incredible edible eggplant

Like Oil Braised Spring Bamboo Shoots, today’s dish is often grossly misinterpreted by restaurant chefs, who take the “oil” part of the name too literally and drown these babies in less-than-stellar oil. And it’s a real shame when that happens, for that just makes them soggy and dulls the flavors. 

When made right, the eggplants are quickly pan-steamed to open them up for the sauce, and then slowly braised in an oil-free blanket of soy sauce and seasonings. Only when they are about to be removed from the heat is a smidgen of toasted sesame oil allowed to round out the textures and add a touch of nuttiness.

Another of this region’s brilliant members of the pentoucai brigade, these Oil Braised Eggplants are super simple and simply super. We used to enjoy them at our old favorite Yangtze region restaurants in Taipei, where they would sit expectantly in the fridge at the front of the shop, their lovely shriveled bodies promising rich flavors and melting tenderness.

Edible silk
We always ate them slightly chilled, for eggplants are at their absolute best in late summer and fall, when the heat is raging and the summer vegetables are in their final stages of glory. Really, eggplants are meant to be eaten now. 

I used to devour cold ratatouille all the time when I lived by myself in Taipei, usually as a big scoop straight out of the icebox. Cooling, delicious, and nutritious, it made me a happy camper of the first degree.

But Jiangsu just might have the jump on Provence here, for these splendid denizens of the Yangtze River area are the real deal. Even if you are not crazy about eggplant, something like this just might change your mind.

Oil braised eggplants
Yóumèn qiézi 油燜茄子
Zhejiang and Jiangsu
Serves 4 to 6

4 Chinese eggplants (about 20 ounces / 800 g), left whole with the tops still attached
½ cup boiling water
3 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots or onions
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
A long, elegant Chinese eggplant

1. Rinse the eggplants and cut them in half or thirds crosswise, so that you have fat batons or more or less the same size. Place them in a wok with the boiling water, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook them covered for around 10 minutes, or until most of the water has boiled off. Toss them around gently so that all sides are cooked.

2. Remove the cover and add the soy sauce, sugar, and shallots or onions. Shake the wok to evenly distribute the seasonings, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Adjust the heat to maintain a good bubbling, but you want to give the eggplants time to cook down, release all of their moisture, and yet not burn, so adjust the heat as needed. Shake the pan occasionally, but don’t use a spatula, as the eggplants are going to turn very soft.

Utterly delicious
3. Check the wok every 5 minutes. This step will take longer than you expect because although you only added 3 tablespoons soy sauce, the salt will cause the eggplants to release their juices, and so the liquid will look pretty constant while this happens. When the soy sauce has finally cooked down to a sticky slick of only a tablespoon or two – around 45 minutes – the eggplants will have shriveled and look like your fingers when you’ve stayed in the bathtub too long. They will be very, very fragile at this point. So, drizzle the sesame oil over them, shake the wok to distribute the oil, cook the eggplants uncovered for a minute or two to further reduce the sauce, and then use a spatula or chopsticks to nudge the eggplants out onto a serving plate. (If you refrigerate them, do your best not to squish them down, as eggplants this done are rarely photogenic as it is, and pressure = mush. Still tasty, but...) They can be served hot or chilled and served cold the next day.


Monday, August 29, 2016

The Books Are Here!!! + Zhejiang's Pork in a Crock!

Look at this! #1 New Release on Amazon's Chinese Cooking!!

And it's coming out TOMORROW!!

Please excuse my excitement... this has been a very long time coming. Ten years, to be exact, and I am so thrilled and grateful and downright happy that All Under Heaven is finally seeing the light of day. Thank you all for your incredible support!

The Dim Sum Field Guide is doing very well indeed, too: #1 on Amazon in the General China Travel Guides department! 

Other great news: We are getting great reviews across the board. Georgia Freedman had a generous couple of things to say on the Wall Street Journal about All Under Heaven. Tasting Table featured All Under Heaven in its article, "The Most Exciting New Cookbooks for Fall 2016." Both books are given a very nice mention on Eat Your Books. Virginia Miller @ThePerfectSpot called my twins "the book of the week (or 2)" on Twitter, and the Cookbook Junkies made my head explode with this insanely lovely bunch of words and cookbook giveaway - thank you, Jenny and Marc!

One of my recipes is up on Epicurious. Please, try it and rate it! 

Plus, a very kind reader pointed out that my dim sum illustrations for Lucky Peach were given a great shoutout last year on First We Feast. Nice, and wow! (I need to learn to Google myself...)

And if you're in NYC around the middle of next month, please try to join me at the 92nd St Y for a talk about, well, you know.


*  *  *

You’ve never had tender until you’ve eaten classically prepared Chinese pork. I’m not talking about stir-fries here, but braises, those rich, decadent, lip-smacking, mind-blowing, insanely addictive dishes that slowly cook for hours until the pork belly or shank or what-have-you finally surrenders into a pillow of delectable textures that sponge up the sauce and make dinner that night a really good reason to celebrate.

Pork in a crock is popular throughout many parts of China. Shandong, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Hunan... it’s hard to find a Han Chinese cuisine that doesn’t fuss in its own way over this dish, adding local flavors to make it their very own. A lot of this has to do with history. Just like Europe, China’s food cultures are a reflection of mass migrations, wars, famines, and upheavals that sent entire villages out in search of better places to live. And, as with all people, they brought their families’ recipes with them, adding this and subtracting that as they cooked with what was there in the new neighborhood.

I witnessed a speeded-up version of this culinary evolution when I lived in Taiwan. The island was home to its own cuisine – basically a template from Quanzhou in southern Fujian tempered with flavors from the local Hakka people, a good dash of Japanese inspirations due to Taiwan’s status as a colony for 50 years, and influences from other ports of call in southern China. But as people from all over the country were busy setting down roots on the island following the fall of the Mainland and the ensuing mass immigration of 1949 to what we used to call Formosa, dishes from just about everywhere took root, too, and became part of Taiwan’s own culinary geography.

For example, Taiwan is renowned for its beef noodle soup, but when I first arrived in the mid-1970’s, few Taiwanese would even consider eating beef, as water buffalo were prized as farmers’ living tractors and were so important to their families that eating them would have been viewed as disgusting, and also incredibly ungrateful. But times have changed, and Taiwan is now a part of the developed world with semiconductor companies eating up the old rice paddies. 

But back to this week’s dish. This is basically red-cooked pork and is most definitely a Zhejiang delight, for you have your bamboo shoots, your ginger, your soy sauce, your generous amount of Shaoxing rice wine, and your touch of rock sugar. In fact, it calls for a whole lot of Shaoxing rice wine and only a smidgen of soy sauce, which means that it’s not terribly salty, but rather rich and decadent. My toes curl in excitement just smelling it cooking away on the counter.

I’ve tossed in a dozen hardboiled eggs, too, which makes my husband ridiculously happy. If you are not an egg fiend, use six or so, or even eliminate them – it doesn’t really matter. But around my house, if I aim to eat one of these eggs, I have to have a whole lot in there to distract him and to outwit his single-minded onslaught on this favorite food.

Use the best pork - with skin
One big difference between my recipe and the traditional one is that usually this calls for an actual crock that is sealed with cloth and mud so that not a drop of the juices is given the chance to turn into steam and disappear. I’ve gone a slightly easier route by turning to my trusty crockpot. It doesn’t emit a whole lot of steam, plus the heat is gentle enough to slowly cook the meat without ever burning, making this classic incredibly easy. Be sure and boil down the sauce until it is more concentrated, as this is one of the secrets to getting deeply hued meat, shoots, and eggs. If you’re lazy like me, just keep everything in the crockpot after the first day and plug the crockpot in once a day only until the liquid boils. Do that for two or three days, and the star attractions will turn a lovely mahogany hue through and through.

If you are having friends or even an important guest over for a meal, buy two bottles of good quality Shaoxing rice wine for the pork and a really good bottle for drinking. Dinner and your reputation as a great cook will have practically taken care of themselves.

Pork in a crock
Tánzi ròu 子肉
Zhejiang
Serves 4 to 8

Around 2 pounds / 900 g fresh pork belly with the skin on (see Tips)
Boiling water, as needed
1 pound / 450 g fresh or frozen peeled winter bamboo shoots
¼ cup / 1½ ounces / 45 g sliced fresh ginger
6 green onions, trimmed but left whole
2 (600 ml) bottles Shaoxing rice wine (see Tips)
6 to 12 large eggs, hardboiled and peeled
½ cup regular soy sauce
1 piece rock sugar, about the size of an egg

1. Start this at least one day - and preferably three - before serving. Cut the pork into 4 even pieces. Place these in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil and simmer the pork for about 10 minutes to remove the impurities. Then, dump out the water and scum, rinse off and dry the meat, and place it in a 4-quart crockpot.
Simmer away the scum

2. Cut up the bamboo shoots on the angle or with a roll cut into chunks around the size of a large egg. Add these to the crockpot along with the ginger and whole green onions. Bring the rice wine to a boil in a saucepan and then add it to the crockpot; pour in boiling water to cover. Place the lid on the crockpot and bring it to a boil. Cook the pork on high with the lid on for around 5 hours. The pork should at that point be very tender – check this by piercing it with a chopstick, which should glide through the meat as if it were soft butter.

3. At this point add the eggs, soy sauce, and rock sugar to the crockpot, cover again, and bring it to a boil on high before lower the heat and simmering it for another hour or so. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with more soy sauce or sugar as needed. Turn off the crockpot and allow the pork to come to room temperature overnight with the lid on. It can be refrigerated, if you like, for a couple of days, or do as suggested in the headnotes – whatever you do, time is what is needed to give the flavors a good chance to improve.

Yum, yumyumyum
4. About an hour before serving, remove the fat layer on the sauce and use it for something else, like stir-frying vegetables. If you want, each piece of pork can first be sliced into four pieces for easier dining, the eggs halved, and the shoots cleaved in two, as well. (If the dish is cold, heat it slowly in the sauce until everything is warmed up.) Pluck out and discard the green onions, and then plate up the meat, eggs, and bamboo shoots in a wide, shallow bowl. Drizzle the sauce over everything or serve it on the side. If you’d rather, arrange the tidbits on top of rice before ladling the sauce on top. Any way you do this, it will end up amazingly delicious. Be sure and eat the fat and skin sitting on top of and around the meat: it won’t be in the least greasy, but rather will be more like munching on heavenly scented clouds.

Tips

The quality of two ingredients here are absolutely vital to the success of this dish: the pork and the rice wine.

Get your hands on some good pork belly with the skin on at an excellent butcher. What's good pork belly? First, it should be humanely raised and butchered. Nothing smells as bad as supermarket pork that comes from a factory farm. 

The best pork belly (also called a side of pork) is half meat and half fat: lots of thinnish, alternating lines of red and white. You do NOT want lean meat here - it will turn out tough and stringy. And if the meat parts of the pork belly happen to be too thick, they will never become tender. Remove any thick flap of meat that's on the inner surface of the belly and use it for a stir-fry or something, because you can forget about it ever softening up.


The not-so-secret ingredients
If you can't find good pork belly, look for a well-marbled shoulder (also called the pork butt). Since you want it with the skin on, this might require you to call ahead and reserve it. So, nurture a good relationship with your butcher, and soon you'll be able to buy all of those lovely cuts that work well in Chinese cooking: anything with skin, plus trotters, tails, cheeks, kidneys, livers, and so on. 

Good quality Shaoxing rice wine is also necessary here. Don't get the cheap brands, which can be like rotgut. If at all possible, hunt down Taiwan's TTL brand Shaoxing rice wine, which as a good, mushroomy, sherry-like flavor. It makes all the difference in the flavor of the sauce. And be sure to nibble on the sauce if you happen to chill it... it's insanely good that way.

Finally, note that the soy sauce is added toward the end. Salt tends to toughen meat, so try to hold back on adding soy sauce and salt to braises and soups until you get toward the end.