Monday, June 18, 2018

Crunchy taro scallion breads

It’s hard to improve on perfection, but sometimes you just have to try. 

Case in point: Taiwan’s fried scallion breads. I’ve covered those classic snacks before, in All Under Heaven, plus a pumpkin variation here on the blog, but today I’m here with a very fine variation, one that I’m sure you’ll love, too.

Three things make this recipe unique. 

First, I took a clue from the big raised scallion breads of the North (dàbĭng 大餅) and used yeasty bread dough instead of plain flour and water. This puffs up the pastries and makes them super light. Now, this is important because of factor two:

A really good taro root
The taro in here. It’s no secret. I love taro. There’s something about its sweet warmth that equals total food comfort to me. 

And so, whenever I find an especially good taro root, I peel it, cube it, and freeze it so that I can satisfy my cravings quickly and with little fuss. 

To make the mashed taro, just steam the taro until it’s soft all the way through, which should not take more than 15 minutes. Mash the cooked taro with a fork until it’s smooth, and that’s it. And because the taro is starchy, you also need factor three:

Steamed taro cubes
Olive oil. Yes, I know, this is not traditional, but my Chinese friends are coming to love it almost as much as me, not only for its flavor, but also for its health benefits. You don’t have to use extra virgin. Regular is perfect for this.

The olive oil lends a great creaminess to the taro and also crisps up the dough like nobody’s business. 

I’ve tried other oils here, and olive oil is the way to go. You can slip some toasted sesame oil into the filling, if you want, but sesame oil is so strongly flavored that it tends to out shout the taro’s subtle aroma.

Finally, be sure and sprinkle the fried breads with some really good salt. This makes each mouthful a joy.

For a complete breakfast, you can top the breads with a fried egg. 

Sprinkle on the fillings
To do this, wait until the bread is fried to a golden crisp, and then set it to one side. Add a touch more oil to the pan and crack an egg in there. Then, immediately squoosh the bread down onto the egg so that it cracks the yolk and welds to the egg. Fry the egg just until it’s cooked to your liking, and you’re ready to eat.

Crunchy taro scallion breads
Yùní cōngyóubĭng  芋泥蔥油餅
Makes 4

2 teaspoons bread yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup warm water
2 cups | 320 g Chinese flour  (or 1⅓ cups | 210 g all purpose plus ⅔ cup | 110 g pastry flour)
Fold the long edges over
About 1 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup | 100 g taro, cooked and mashed
½ cup | 50 g finely chopped green onions
½ cup | 120 ml water
Flaky salt, like Maldon

1. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar on the water and wait until the yeast foams, about 20 minutes. Place the flour in a large work bowl and mix in the yeasty liquid until you have coarse flakes, then turn it out on a board and knead until supple. (You probably won’t need more flour.) Lightly oil the bowl and toss the dough around in it to cover it with the oil. Place a towel or plastic wrap over the bowl and let the dough rise to twice its size, punch it down, and let it rise once more.

Coil the dough into a snail
2. Lightly oil your counter and a Chinese rolling pin. Have a pastry scraper ready, too. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Working on one at a time, roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 12 x 4 inches | 30 x 10 cm. Brush the surface with around a tablespoon of oil and sprinkle it with a quarter of the salt, taro, and green onions. Fold both of the long edges over the filling and then fold it once again down the middle to form a rope. Coil the rope around to form a ball, and then flatten this with your hand. Roll out the ball to form a disc that is about ½ inch | 1 cm thick. Repeat with the other pieces of dough and filling until you have 4 raw discs. The edges of the discs will look alarmingly tattered, but that’s actually good news, as these will fry up into incredibly crunchy bits. The raw discs can be frozen at this point, if you wish; you don’t need to defrost them before frying.

Raggedy is good here
3. Set a frying pan over medium heat and have a platter lined with parchment or tempura paper ready. Pour about ¼ inch | 5 mm of oil into the hot frying pan and then slide in one of the discs. Immediately pour about 2 tablespoons water around the edge of the dough and cover the pan, as this will steam-fry the bread and ensure that the center rises quickly. Remove the cover when there’s no more steam and fry it on one side until golden brown. Flip it over, fry until the other side is also golden brown, and then remove to drain on the paper. Fry the other discs in the same way, adding more oil as needed.

4. To serve, cut the discs into quarters and sprinkle with the flaky salt. Serve while hot. If you want, you can hold the fried breads in a 275°F | 135°C oven to keep them warm, although I have been known to scarf up the still-crispy cool ones when no one is looking.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Vegetarian escargots à la bourguignonne

The two of us fell in love with Burgundy-style snails in, of all places, Taipei. 

We had a super fancy French restaurant in town called, of course, Le Escargot, a place where even in the early Eighties a bottle of something like a Christian Brothers red would set us back at least $40. Our rent for a condo was less than three times that, so you can see that this was a rare treat.

Escargot were almost impossible to find, too, and butter, and French bread, for that matter. 

But necessity is the mother of something or other, and we really wanted to eat these little guys on a more regular basis, so I went to work.

Fresh black mushrooms
Taiwan’s fresh mushrooms are divine, and we would buy big fat brown ones up from old ladies who went foraging in the hills behind our house. And one day I started thinking… I wonder if I could use these? My conclusion: they’re even better. No grit, lots of flavor, and super cheap. What’s not to love?

I hunted down some tinned butter, which was a revelation. There wasn’t enough demand for real butter at the time for any markets to offer it fresh, so I invested in some French butters that came in cans and were really quite good. For the French bread, well, I always had my Julia Child recipe to fall back on. As for the broiler, I had gotten my hands on a little toaster oven that worked just fine. I even had seashells to hold the fake escargots.

In other words, this was a big ordeal, but when you really want to eat something, you’ll figure out a way to do it, right?

Now that everything is so easy, I had almost forgotten how good this was. We had it recently and know that from now on it will be on regular rotation.

I always serve these with lots of French bread, a tossed salad, and some good red wine. Little forks are traditional, but I have to tell you that chopsticks work a whole lot better. Sop up the butter with the bread as you go. This is sensuous stuff.

Vegetarian escargots à la bourguignonne chez Huang
Huángjiā Făshì sù guāníu 黃家法式素蝸牛
Faux snails in their coffins
Serves 2 as a main entrée, or 4 as an appetizer

4 fresh black mushrooms or shiitake
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ cup lightly packed | 30 g finely chopped parsley
1 stick | ½ cup | 115 g unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Have four heatproof escargot pans or plates ready, or use empty snail shells—you can find these in higher-end kitchenware shops and online. If you’re using the shells, place them on a baking sheet.

2. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and wipe the caps clean. Using your kitchen shears, cut the caps into thin strips, no more than ¼ inch | 5 mm wide, and then slice these into snail-like pieces. Distribute the mushrooms evenly among your pans, plates, or shells. These will shrink considerably as they cook, so don’t feel bad about smashing them down to fit.

Top with the compound butter
3. Place the garlic, parsley, butter, salt, and pepper in a small work bowl and mix them together thoroughly. Distribute this paste evenly among the snails. There’s no need to get too crazy with making them look nice, as the butter will melt soon enough.

4. Set your broiler rack about 2 inches | 5 cm from the broiler (or more, if your shells are big—whatever you're using, you want at least 1 inch | 2.5 cm clearance from the heat), and then turn on the broiler to high.  Place the mushrooms in the broiler and keep an eye on them. As soon as they’ve started to turn golden and are sputtering nicely, remove from the oven and serve on heatproof plates.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Plum liquor redux

Earth Day has already come and gone, but I still like to recycle. What can I say? I'm a giver.

So, when I saw green plums in the market this week, I knew I had to repost this recipe. 

For, I'm happy to report, it's now time to make your very own homemade plum liquor. Green meizi are around for only a few precious weeks, so hop to it. 

Trust me, this recipe is worth making. You'll be giggling happily and thanking me in a couple of months, when the weather has finally turned cool and this nectar is as smooth as honey...

*   *   *

Now in a store near you!
If you are anything like me, you probably like the sweetish and fruity Japanese liquor known as umeshu that’s sold with a couple of little fruits stuck inside the simple green glass bottle. I’m not going to name any brands here, but you probably know which one I’m talking about.

What you probably don’t know is that this is quite easy to make. Plus, you can use a good grade of alcohol (I like Korean soju, a higher octane white liquor that is much stronger than what usually goes into the stuff sold as plum wine) that makes this perfect for cocktails. 

I also prefer my drinks less sweet than what is usually commercially available, and a little DIY makes that possible.

After a couple of days
Another good thing about making your own homemade booze is that you can put lots and lots of fruit in the mix, which gives the flavor a lovelier punch. My plum liquor really tastes like plums – a cause for celebration in my book.

I’ve been making this liquor for years and never get tired of it, not only because it really is quite tasty, but also this gives me a chance to play around with it a whole lot. 

For example, in today’s recipe, you will find perilla leaves (also known as zĭsū 紫蘇 or shiso) adding wonderful depth to the brew. It’s sort of a vegetal note that contrasts well with all that fruitiness. You might have only run across perilla in Japanese dishes like sushi or pickles, but they are delicious and go especially well with stone fruit like these plums.

One thing on the nomenclature before we go much further: the fruit known as méizi 梅子 in Chinese are actually a type of apricot. Sometimes these are referred to as “Japanese apricots,” but they originated in China  just saying. They are almost always used when they are still firm and green for preserves, pickles, or in wines/liquors. 

So beautiful at this point
You will find them in East Asian markets around the beginning of summer, and when that happens, snap them up immediately because their season is a short one.

All you need to do is slash their skins and then soak them overnight in salted water to leach out some of the bitterness. Then, just toss them in a jar with your soju, rock sugar, and optional perilla leaves. After that, simply give them the time to get to know each other – six months or more is ideal, and longer is even better – before breaking out your now dusty but delicious bottle.

Homemade plum liquor
Zìzhì méizijĭu 自製梅子酒
Japan via Taiwan
Makes around 3 quarts (3 liters)

Around 3 pounds (1.5 kgs) green “Japanese” apricots
Cool water, as needed
2 tablespoons sea salt
About 2 pounds (1 kg) yellow rock sugar, or more if you like this relatively sweet
1 bunch perilla, optional
3 (1.75 l) bottles soju, Jinro brand recommended
Korean soju

1. Rinse the apricots well and check them over as you do so. You can trim any that have tiny nicks or bruises, but discard ones that are rotted or have insects roaming around inside. Pluck off the stems as you find them, and then slash the skin of each fruit 4 to 5 times. 

2. Place the prepped fruit in a large work bowl, cover with cool water, add the salt, and stir them around a bit to more or less dissolve the salt. Leave the bowl in a cool area overnight.

3. The next day, rinse the fruit well. Drain them in a colander and then rub the fruit lightly with a clean towel. Place the fruit in a 3 quart (3 l) or larger jar. Add the rock sugar and optional perilla, and then pour the soju over everything. 

4. Cover the jar and set it somewhere convenient on the counter so that you can swish it around every day for about a week – this will help dissolve the sugar and also ensure that the fruits don’t get a chance to mold before they sink to the bottom of the jar. Enjoy this time, since the sugar will start to dissolve in the alcohol and will make the bottom of the jar look kind of magical, while the fruits bob around on top.
Slash the skins

5. When the fruit has sunk to the bottom of the jar, place the covered jar somewhere quiet where it can mature for six or more months. You can drink it any time you like, but it does get better the longer it sits. The liquor is, of course, really good, and the fruits are lovely as little treats, too, but the perilla should be discarded. I either just ladle out the liquor as it is needed or put it up in smaller bottles, but with mouths large enough for the fruits to go in and out easily. And you definitely want to put those plums in the liquor, as they continue to mellow over time and turn into little amber morsels. I have some from about a decade ago, and they are now soft and delectable, and of course the liqueur is as smooth as satin. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Beautiful burdock, Taiwanese style

This is truly home-style food in Taiwan, the sort of thing a doting grandma might prepare for a weekday dinner. 

It’s very simple, very easy, and such a wonderful combination of meat and vegetables that you will really need little more than a bowl of rice to find yourself perfectly satisfied.

Burdock can be found in most East Asian markets in the produce section. 

Old school stores will have the whole root ready for you in sawdust-filled boxes, while supermarkets will prefer to cut these whip-sized taproots down into smaller pieces that will fit onto trays. Either way is fine.

A whole burdock root
The Chinese call this vegetable niubang and the Japanese refer to it as gobo. When you buy burdock, lightly press it all over. It should feel hard and solid, which meats that it’s fresh and juicy. These do dry out over time, though, so look at the wispy bottom end, if it’s there, and if you see shriveling, pay particular attention to how heavy and full the rest of the root is. Sometimes the roots will be a dark brown, and other times they will have a beige skin. Both are fine.

When you get the root home, don’t store it on the counter, as it will dry out fast. Instead, cut it into lengths and wrap it in moist paper towels before refrigerating it in a plastic bag.

Most likely a riff on the Japanese kinpira gobo, this Taiwanese version is much more fully flavored, as it is laced with thin strips of beef and a deeper-hued sauce. 

Cut-up burdock
To my mind the dish ends up being heartier and satisfying this way, but then again, I’m a dedicated carnivore. If you want to leave out the meat, do what I do when serving this to veggie friends: use vegetarian beef. Really, even I can barely taste the difference when a good brand is used!

As for the beef, I like to get a small piece of steak for this. Anything will do, just as long as it’s not too fatty or full of connective tissue. Plus, this requires such a small amount that you can splurge and it won’t even hurt.

And finally, you’ll see that you will have to work on your julienning skills here. But it’s worth it. This dish is designed to be a colorful tangle of confetti. Making everything the same size guarantees a variety of flavors and textures in each mouthful. Plus, don’t leave out the toasted sesame seeds. That’s the definitive Taiwanese touch here, and it adds a lovely nutty layer to this beloved classic.

Burdock matchsticks
Stir-fried burdock and beef
Níubàng chăo níuròu 牛蒡炒牛肉
Serves 4

4 ounces | 100 g boneless beefsteak (see headnotes)
3 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce

The rest:
1 burdock root (about 1 pound | 450g)
Cool water, optional
Half a lemon or 1 tablespoon pale vinegar, optional
1 medium carrot (about 2 ounces | 50 g)
1 green onion, trimmed
Vegetable matchsticks
¼ cup | 15 g julienned fresh ginger
¼ cup peanut or vegetable oil, divided in half
¼ cup | 60 ml water, divided in half
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
3 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1. Before you get started, place the beef in the freezer for around 30 minutes to firm it up and make it easy to slice.

2. Rinse the burdock and use a potato peeler to remove the skin. Cut out any dark or soft spots. Chop the root into 2-inch | 5-cm lengths, and then cut each piece into thin matchsticks or julienne. If you are not cooking the burdock immediately, place in a bowl, cover it with cool water, and squeeze in half a lemon or a tablespoon of pale vinegar. Peel the carrot and cut it into matchsticks approximately the same size as the burdock; as carrots won’t oxidize, they don’t need to be covered with water. Cut the green onion into pretty much the same size julienne, too.
Beef matchsticks - notice a theme?

3. Cut the beef into matchsticks about the same size as the julienned burdock. Toss it with 3 tablespoons mild rice wine and 1 tablespoon regular soy sauce. Let it marinate for at least 15 minutes.

4. Set a wok over medium-high heat. As soon as the metal starts to smoke, drizzle in half the oil. Add the ginger and stir it around over the heat to release its fragrance, and then add the beef, but reserve the marinade. As soon as the beef has begun to brown, scrape everything out into a small work bowl.

5. Drain the burdock and rinse it in a colander before shaking it dry. Return the wok to the heat and add the other half of the oil. Swirl it around and then add the burdock. Stir-fry it for a few seconds, and then add half of the water. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle boil. Stir the burdock occasionally, and when most of the water has evaporated, add the rest. Continue to cool the burdock until all the water has evaporated again, then stir-fry it until the burdock is tender and golden on the edges, about 10 minutes total cooking time.
Grandma food

6. Turn the heat back up to medium-high and add the carrots. Stir-fry for around a minute before tossing in the green onions, beef, the leftover marinade, 2 tablespoons rice wine, 3 tablespoons regular soy sauce, and the sugar. 

7. Keep tossing the sauce with the meat and vegetables until it creates a shiny slick on them and most of the moisture has evaporated. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Scrape everything out onto a serving place and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Serve hot.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Homemade Taiwanese mustard pickles

Home fermentation is way easier than it sounds. All you really need is a pickling crock and a weight to press things down nicely inside the crock, and you’re halfway home. 

A digital scale is also very helpful, if you have access to one of those, since it makes measuring things that much easier. But really, other than that, you just require sea salt, fresh vegetables, clean water, and time.

Make sure everything is squeaky clean, as the number one reason for pickles going south is that somewhere along the line contamination sneaked in. 

Check out this recipe for traditional Sichuan pickles on how to set up a pickle crock, where to get one, what they look like, and all that good stuff. 

Split open the cleaned heads
My secret to success is that I scrub the utensils and douse them with boiling water. My hands are washed thoroughly before I mess around with the pickles, and I ensure that the veggies completely air dry before they are salted. Plus, I like to add a small splash of white liquor to add flavor and a sort of bacterial Band-Aid.

I’m rewarded with pickles that taste the way they used to. Nowadays everything is made in such huge batches and then packaged for goodness knows how long. You really don’t know what is in that pickle, or how much and what kind of preservatives got used. With homemade, it’s all very simple and very natural.

In order to get a pretty yellow tinge, I've added fresh turmeric, about a finger or two will do it per batch. The amount doesn't really matter, as you won't taste it. And it is optional, in case you don't have access to it. Once the pickles are done, you can either remove the turmeric or keep it in.
Dry under the sun for a couple of days

The good news is that these pickles taste truly wonderful. They are not too sour, but rather gently tart and nicely flavorful. Unlike commercially made ones, you don't need to rinse off the extra salt or overpowering sourness. Instead, just pluck them out of the brine and slice away. They are even tasty raw!

The traditional way to use them in Taiwan is to stir-fry the pickles with dried chiles. Any way you cut them, though, these are delicious, with the tangy heat of mustard and the exceptional crunch of very happy vegetables.

Wilted mustard heads
Taiwanese mustard pickles
Táiwān suāncài 台灣酸菜
Taiwan cuisine
Makes as much as you want

Fresh head mustard
Coarse sea salt
Filtered water, boiled and cooled
Fresh turmeric, thinly sliced, optional
Gaoliang or gin

1. Start this recipe at least 3 weeks before you plan to serve it. If you have a digital scale, your job will be much easier, as the math will be that much easier to work with. Choose a sunny day to start this, as the mustard has to be sun-dried for 24 to 48 hours. Have a couple of clean flat baskets ready, or else cover your baking sheets with very clean tea towels.

Rub with salt
2. Weigh your mustard and write this down. Don’t throw that piece of paper away, since the remaining ingredients will depend upon it for accuracy. Rinse the mustard and cut the heads in half, or quarters if they are particularly large. Shake the mustard dry and lay it out on the baskets or towel-lined baking sheets in single layers. Sun-dry the mustard for 1 to 2 days, just until the leaves start to shrivel and the stems no longer look perky. Cover the mustard if you keep it out overnight. 

3. Prepare your pickling crock and the weights by cleaning and rinsing them very well. Place the weights in the crock and pour boiling water halfway up the crock. Dump out the water when it has cooled and air-dry the crock (as well as the weights) upside-down on a clean tea towel.

Weights on the mustard
4. Measure out your coarse salt: you will need 2.5% of the weight of your mustard. In other words, for every 1 kg you will need 25 g coarse salt. (If you don’t remember how to do this, multiply the total weight of the mustard by 0.025.) Place a head or two of the mustard in a large work bowl and scrub the mustard really well with the salt, as this will help release the juices and speed up the pickling. Transfer the raggedy mustard to the crock and repeat with the rest of the mustard and salt until they have all be used up. Add the optional turmeric.

5. Place the weights on the mustard and press down. Tuck in any pieces that are sticking above the weights, as a flatter surface will help cut down on spoilage. Cover the mustard and weights with cool water. This should be the original weight of the mustard times by about 0.7. (Or, around 700 ml cool water per 1 kg of mustard.) Sprinkle the top of the water with the gaoliang or gin, at a rate of 1 tablespoon per 1 kg of mustard.

Worth the minimal effort
6. Place the crock in a cool, dark area. Cover it and then pour water in the moat around the lid. Check the pickles after a couple of days, as they should start to smell a bit sour. Keep the water level around the lid high to prevent contamination. (If you use another type of pickling crock, follow package directions.) If you have a pickle crock with a moat, you will be rewarded with lots of farts within a day or two. As the farts die down, this means the fermentation is slowing down and the pickles are nearing perfection. Check them after about 3 weeks; cut off a piece and taste it. The pickle should taste tart and gently salty. When you're satisfied, transfer the pickles to sterilized Mason jars or brand new resealable plastic bags or some other spanking clean containers. Refrigerate the pickles in their juices until needed.


If the arithmetic seems confusing, think of it this way:
1 kg mustard
25 g sea salt
750 ml cool water
1 finger fresh turmeric
1 tablespoon gaoliang or gin

Monday, May 14, 2018

Cantonese cheesy fried chicken

Guangdong is home to some of the best southern fried chicken around. Yes, Georgia and Alabama and all the rest of our own Deep South can fairly lay claim to superb fried birds.

But think about this: you marinate the chicken in a wine-infused cheesy sauce before coating it in cornstarch. Then, you fry it up nice and crunchy, then toss it with green onions and salt. Sitting down to a summer supper that stars this dish would be one even your beloved grandma would be proud to call her own!

You can use storebought nanru or use homemade. If you have never made bean curd cheese before, this is a good excuse to start. Think of brie crossed with red wine. Oh yes.
Toss in cornstarch one by one

Not much work at all here. This is pure deliciousness.

Cheesy fried chicken
Nánrŭ zhájī  南乳炸雞
Serves 6

12 chicken wings (about 2 pounds | 1 kg), preferably free range
3 cubes red bean curd cheese (nanru), plus 1 tablespoon of the sauce
¼ cup mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
Frying oil (used ok if it smells good)
1 cup | 180 g cornstarch
Coarse sea salt, to taste
1 finely chopped green onion
Fry till crunchy and gold

1. Start this recipe at least 7 hours before you plan to serve it to give the wings time to marinate. Pat the wings dry and cut them between the drumstick and the second section. Leave the wingtips on, if you like.

2. In a medium work bowl, mash the bean curd cheese with the sauce and rice wine. Add the ginger and the chicken, toss lightly, cover, and refrigerate for 6 hours and up to a day or so to fully marinate the wings.

3. Prepare a baking sheet by covering it with tempura or parchment paper and heat your oven to 275°C | 135°C. Just before serving, pour about 1 inch | 2 cm frying oil in a wok and set it over medium-high heat. 

Yes, you want this
4. Place the cornstarch in a work bowl and toss the wings in the starch, one at a time, so that they become fully covered. Lightly shake off any extra cornstarch, and then slide the wing into the hot oil. Don’t overcrowd the wok, so cook around 6 pieces at a time. Adjusting the heat as necessary, fry them on both sides until they are golden brown, around 7 minutes. Make sure no blood seeps out of the cut ends, as that means the chicken isn’t fully cooked yet. 

5. Transfer the cooked chicken to the baking sheet, sprinkle with some salt and green onions, and repeat with the rest of the chicken until done. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, if you like. Transfer to a platter and serve hot.