Monday, February 11, 2019

Amaranth with crispy baby shrimp

This classic Taiwanese/Southern Fujianese recipe features two ingredients that might not be all that familiar if you shop mainly at places like Safeway, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods: amaranth and dried baby shrimp. 

But if you set a plate of this down in front of someone from the southeastern Chinese seaboard, you are going to have one very happy person digging in. This simply tastes of home cooking, and it’s also a dish that you don’t find all that often in restaurants outside of the homeland.

Amaranth is a beautiful leafy green, sometimes a solid emerald and sometimes bearing garnet-colored veins. I can’t taste any difference between the two, so go with what you can find. 

Trim off the leaves and tip
This is usually found only in Chinese markets around here, where it’s known as xiàncài. Amaranth usually will be bundled up into a bouquet, so try to peek inside to ensure that not much rotting is going on, as this is the sort of vegetable that dissolves into mush if it sits around too long. And that is also the reason why you should plan to cook this no more than a day or two after you’ve bought it.

To prepare amaranth, use your fingernails to nip off the side leaves and the tender cluster at the top of each stem, and then toss the stem. Rinse the leaves carefully and shake them as dry as you can. That’s it.

The prepped leaves
Amaranth is one of those vegetables that has to be salted with a light hand, though. It doesn’t absorb flavors in the least, and so everything that is added to it sort of sits on the surface. For that reason it’s a good idea to not add any extra salt to this dish unless you are sure it really needs it.

Baby dried shrimp are always great, but what I really adore about them is the way they turn into a luscious combination of crunch and funk whenever they are slowly toasted in oil. Yes, I know, the traditional way is to just toss the little guys into the wok with the greens, which gives them a nicely mellow edge, but try it my way and see. It's delicious. 

I often fry these shrimp up as a side for things like congee or even as a bar snack, and they are terrific in omelets and fried rice, as well. Another variation on this theme is to use salted whitebait (wěnzĭyú 吻仔魚 or mòzĭyú 仔魚), which are immature fish fry (i.e., baby fish). Both are very good in this lovely dish.
Dried baby shrimp

Amaranth with crispy baby shrimp
Xiāpí chăo xiàncài  蝦皮炒莧菜
Taiwanese and Southern Fujianese cuisine
Serves 4

1 bunch (about 1 pound | 500 g) fresh amaranth
6 tablespoons toasted sesame oil or vegetable oil, plus more as needed
A handful or so of dried baby shrimp
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1. Remove the leaves and tips from the amaranth stems, and then discard the stems. Rinse the leaves carefully in a colander and shake dry.

Like your Ah-ma used to make...
2. Pour the oil into a cool wok and add the dried shrimp. Fry the shrimp over medium heat, stirring often, until the oil is foamy and the shrimp have turned a golden brown, but are not yet dark. Scrape the fried shrimp into a small work bowl and return any oil back to the wok. You should have about 3 tablespoons at this point, so add more oil if needed.

3. Set the wok over medium-high heat and add the garlic first. Stir this around over the heat until it begins to sizzle, and then add the amaranth leaves. Turn the heat up to high and stir-fry the amaranth until it wilts and almost all of the liquid in the wok has evaporated. Toss in the fried shrimp. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Train station omelet rolls

Tomorrow is the first day of the Year of the Pig, and to celebrate, here's an old favorite of ours.

There’s nothing unusual about these omelet rolls, except for the fact that they are closest I've ever gotten to the porky nirvana I used to enjoy in a crappy little restaurant tucked into an alley next to the Taipei train station. 

That place is long gone, but I've been on the elusive trail of the right ingredients for the past 30-odd years.

What was it that made those omelet rolls so mouth-watering? Well, to start with, the pork filling was so juicy that great care had to be taken whenever we attempted to bite into them, because serious dribbling usually ensued. The pork was seasoned so perfectly that my taste buds would almost stand up and march through the eggy wrapper in a frantic search for more of that well-seasoned ground pork.

The pork itself probably came from what the Taiwanese call “black hair pigs,” the variety generally acknowledged to be of the highest quality and have the best flavor, much like what you get here from organic boutique ranchers. But Taiwan back then was an island jam-packed with pork aficionados, and pork was in just about every local dish. 

The thin omelet that wrapped up those long ground-pork logs were done with a deft hand and a good attention to heat and timing, because they were invariably supremely tender, yet able to stand up to being used as wrappers.
Braise with black mushrooms

I can’t fail to remember the mesmerizingly delicious poaching broth – that too was a serious piece of culinary art right there; what had started out as a simple broth had been enhanced by who knows how many days or weeks or years of stewing more and more omelets, their juices and seasonings seeping out and adding even more flavor to the broth. 

And finally, the omelet roll was always served with a good dribble of their insanely good sauce made of dark soy sauce, rock sugar, and other seasonings. That deeply caramel sauce was just sweet enough and just salty enough to gild this perfect lily.

No wonder I was never able to forget it.

My late father-in-law used to make small omelet purses for his New Year’s Eve banquets, and the fillings were a mixture of ground pork and fish. However, just in time for holiday cooking, these are more like the ones we came to love in that rattrap of a restaurant next to the train station. Be prepared, for this is serious home cooking.

Braised pork omelet rolls
Qīngdùn dànjuăn  清燉蛋捲
Mix the filling with your hand
Jiangsu cuisine
Serves 6

8 ounces | 225 g best quality ground pork with 15% fat, or ground dark turkey meat
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
4 leaves Chinese cabbage, blanched and finely chopped
2 scallions, trimmed and chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

5 large eggs
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed

4 fresh or dried black Chinese mushrooms, the dried ones soaked overnight
Mushroom soaking liquid, if using dried mushrooms, strained
Thin omelet wrapper
2 cups | 500 ml unsalted chicken stock or water
6 slices fresh ginger
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 ml Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon rock sugar
1 scallion, trimmed and sliced into a thin julienne, for garnish

1. This is best if you prepare it ahead of time so that the omelets can wallow in the sauce, but freshly made is good, too. Place the pork on a cutting board set on a wet washcloth. Smack the pork with the backs of two heavy knives, scraping the meat up and turning it over as needed, until the pork is light, fluffy, and sticky. Scrape the meat into a work bowl. Use your hand to mix in the soy sauce and rice wine until they are fully absorbed, and then mix in the cabbage, scallions, and ginger, squishing any lumps of pork as you go.

2. Lightly beat the eggs until broken up and then whisk in the cornstarch. Set a wok over medium heat and swirl a teaspoon or so of oil around the bottom. Add a third of the egg mixture into the wok and swirl the wok so that the egg spreads out into a wide omelet. Fry only until the top of the omelet is no longer wet. Tip the omelet out onto a plate. Repeat two more times so that you end up with 3 omelets.

3. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and slice the caps. Place the sliced mushrooms, the mushroom soaking liquid, ginger slices, soy sauce, rice wine, and rock sugar in a wide pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower to a simmer.

A filled roll
4. While the sauce is simmering, make the filled omelets: Lay the omelets with the browned sides down on a work surface. Divide the filling in three and spread a third over each omelet. Roll each omelet up halfway, fold in the ends, and then continue to roll it up like a carpet.

5. Set the wok over medium heat. Add about a tablespoon of oil and swirl it around. Add one filled omelet with the fold side down and gently fry it on both sides to set its shape. Remove the omelet to the sauce and repeat with the other filled omelets.

6. Reduce the heat under the pan to low and simmer the omelets uncovered, being sure to gently turn the omelets over now and then. Taste the sauce after about 15 minutes and adjust the seasoning as desired. When the sauce has reduced to about ½ cup | 125 ml, remove the pan from the heat. Cut each omelet into attractive slices and arrange on a serving plate. Drizzle the tops of the omelets with the thickened sauce and sprinkle with the sliced scallion.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Candied Buddha's hand citron

The Lunar New Year in Taiwan was when candied kumquats showed up in every single marketplace. 

My favorite candy shops were on Dihua Street, an older shopping area that was nothing but Japanese-era brick buildings and baskets filled to the brim with dried and preserved ingredients. It was, in short, heaven.

I’ve never been able to resist fresh kumquat candy, but the stuff on these shores often are leftovers from the Jurassic period, which is why I created this recipe years ago to satisfy my craving.

Candied tentacles
We’ve had a Buddha’s hand citron in our yard for years, and this winter it finally decided to give us a bumper crop. 

So, of course, I made Buddhacello (vodka + sugar + chopped up citron), as that is always at the top of my list whenever I’ve received bounty from my friends. 

But this year, I decided to make candied Buddha’s hand citron because a) both citron and kumquats are of the same family and b) I didn’t have any kumquats sitting around and c) these citron are so aromatic that I could smell them all the way up on the second floor.

These surpassed my expectations. The coating is slightly crunchy against the perfectly jelled centers. They fill your sinuses with the most exotic of perfumes. They’re easy. Plus, you end up with a syrup that tastes like a cross between butterscotch and lemons.

Get yourself some Buddha’s hand citron and see what I mean.

Candied Buddha’s hand citron chez Huang
Huángjiā Fóshŏu táng  黃家佛手糖
Chaozhou or Anhui or Fuzhou cuisine, maybe
Makes around 12 ounces | 350 grams, plus about 12 ounces | 350 ml syrup

The fruit:
Something around 1 pound | 500 g Buddha’s hand citron
Water, as needed

Slice between the fingers
The candy:
2 cups | 500 ml water
21 ounces | 600 g yellow rock sugar, or 3 cups | 600 g white (caster) sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup | 100 g sugar, for sanding the candy

1. Place the citron in a bowl of warm, soapy water to soak for a few minutes, and then lightly scrub it with a soft brush. Use a paring knife to remove the stem, and then slice it along the base toward the tentacles, so that you end up with longish strips. Be sure and wash out any grime hidden in the folds. Rinse the citron and pat dry. Don’t worry if you have lots of pith, as this candies up beautifully. Cut the strips into 1-inch | 2 cm batons that are more or less the same thickness, about ½ inch | 1 cm.

Prepped & ready
2. Place the citron in a 2-quart | 2-liter saucepan and cover with water by a couple of inches or centimeters. Bring the pan to a boil and then lower the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook the citron for about 45 minutes, topping the pan off with more boiling water as necessary, until the citron is translucent. Drain the citron.

2. In the same pan, bring the 2 cups | 500 ml water, rock or white sugar, corn syrup, and salt to a boil, cover, and then simmer over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the citron to this syrup and bring the pan again to a steady simmer. Cook the citron for about 25 to 30 minutes, until the syrup reaches around 230ºF | 110 ºC on a candy thermometer. (Be sure and use this larger pan, as the syrup will froth up about halfway through the cooking time, and you don’t want this to boil over.) The citron will look like lustrous amber at this point. Let it soak in the syrup until this comes to room temperature.

Pure amber deliciousness
3. Strain out the citron and let it continue to drain, but reserve and refrigerate all of the syrup for something else. It is incredibly delicious, so don’t waste a drop. When the citron is dry, toss it in the ½ cup | 100 g sanding sugar, and then set the citron on a cake rack over a pan to dry overnight. Layer the candied citron with the leftover sanding sugar in an airtight container. You can use this like any other citron, or serve it as a New Year candy with hot tea.


The syrup will most likely crystallize as it cools, so just heat it up before you use it.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Rev up for Chinese New Year!

The Year of the Pig is almost upon us. February 5th is the first day of the lunar new year, which means it's time to get some holiday food ready. 

Radish cakes are always at the top of my list. 

The English name is, admittedly, lousy. Chinese radishes are nothing like our little red jobs... this vegetable is big and juicy and white. 

Some people call them turnips, but don't let them fool you. These taste like radishes, but without the heat. 

Crispy exterior, creamy insides
Chinese and Korean radishes (luóbō) are best here, but daikon will do in a pinch. The main thing is that the tubers are fresh and sweet and heavy. Asian radishes are at their best in cold weather, so now is the time to buy them.

Be forewarned: radish cakes don't look or taste like cakes. Luóbō gāo is a savory steamed pudding, if I'm going to get all persnickety on you, and the interiors of these slabs turn fabulously creamy when the exterior is fried to a crisp. 

Most restaurants serve this as semi-cold slabs that have been sautéed on two sides. However, radish cakes  can be oh so much more delicious, for the perfect luóbō gāo is served as crunchy slices or nuggets. A nicely browned crust on every side serves to (barely) control the chaos inside: a molten rice lava spangled with bits of Chinese cured meats and mushrooms.
Juicy Korean radishes

A gentle taste of radishes hover in the background, with gravelly bits of sausage and mushroom spiking each bite. My recipe goes a bit wild with all the savory bits, but trust me, you want it this way!

The preparation takes a bit of time to explain, but you'll see down below that it is actually quite easy to put together. That being said, this is a bit of a time suck, so feel free to prep bits and pieces over a couple of days. You can also freeze the cooked puddings. Just defrost them thoroughly (overnight in the refrigerator is best) before slicing and frying.

Radish cakes
Luóbō gāo 蘿蔔糕
Guangdong cuisine
Makes 2 large loaves, serves 12 or more

Cut up some radish batons
¼ cup | 30 g dried shrimp
Boiling water
About 4 pounds | 2.5 kg very fresh Chinese or Korean radishes, or daikon
12 black Chinese mushrooms, soaked until plump
6-inch | 15-cm strip of Cantonese-style cured pork belly
2 Cantonese-style sweet sausages of any kind
About 6 ounces | 170 g shallots, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons | 170 g regular rice flour (not sticky/sweet/glutinous rice flour)
Reserved cooled mushroom soaking water, plus more cool water as needed to make 1½ cups | 375 ml
Lots of freshly ground black pepper (at least 1 teaspoon)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce

Fry-up and serving:
Cornstarch, as needed
Fry the charcuterie
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
Flaky sea salt (like Maldon), for garnish
Chopped scallions or cilantro, for garnish

1. Place the dried shrimp in a heatproof boil and cover with boiling water; let them plump up while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, and then drain and dice coarsely.

2. Trim and peel the radishes. Cut them up to make 2 cups | 275 g of batons (around ¼ inch | 5 mm on 2 sides, and no more than 1 inch | 2 cm long), and coarsely grate the rest. Remove and discard the stems from the mushrooms, and then chop the caps into ¼ inch | 5 mm pieces. If the cured meat and sausages are at all hard, steam them for around 10 minutes to soften them up; reserve any juices and add them to the batter later on. Remove and discard the skin from the pork belly, and then chop it as well as the sausages into very small pieces about the size of lentils. Finely chop the shallots and garlic. 

Rice flour, but not the sticky kind
3. Measure the rice flour into a medium work bowl, and then stir in the water to form a thin batter. Line the bottom of 2 large loaf pans with parchment paper so that the sides extend above the top. Grease both the paper and the insides of the pans. If you are not using a bamboo steamer basket, wrap the lid with a kitchen towel so that moisture doesn't drip back into the cake while it steams.

4. Place the chopped cured meats in a cold wok and fry them over medium heat so that the fat is rendered as the meat cooks. Once the fat is translucent, add the diced shrimp, mushrooms, shallots and garlic, and stir-fry them over medium-high heat until the mushrooms have shrunk down and started to brown a little bit. Scoop the meat mixture out of the wok and into a work bowl.

5. Turn the heat under the wok to high. Add all of the radish shreds and batons to the wok. Sprinkle the black pepper over the radishes, and then cook them, tossing occasionally, until quite a lot of liquid forms at the bottom of the wok and the radishes are completely cooked but not at all mushy. Toss the meat mixture in with the cooked radishes, reserving, if you like, a few tablespoons of the meaty crumbles as decoration later on. Taste the radish-meat mixture and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.

The steamed pudding
6. Remove the wok from the heat and stir the thin batter into the cooked radishes. Gently toss the radish with the batter off of the heat so that the bottom does not scorch. After about 30 seconds, the residual heat in the wok should cook the batter enough so that it starts to thicken. When everything is completely combined, scrape into the prepared pans. Sprinkle on the optional reserved meat mixture, and then use the parchment paper ends to compact the mixture and smooth down the top.

7. Heat a few inches of water under your steamer until it comes to a full boil. Either position the pans on a large trivet and cover them with the wrapped lid, or place the pans in covered bamboo steamer baskets. (You may need to steam the pans separately if your steamer is not large enough.) Steam the pudding for around 90 minutes to 2 hours, replenishing the water as needed, but otherwise not opening the lid, as this will help to cook it evenly. Test to ensure it is completely done through by inserting a paring knife into the center; it should come out clean. Remove the pans from the steamer and allow them to come to room temperature before covering the pans with plastic wrap and refrigerating.
... and then fry it up

8. To serve, slice the chilled pudding into either 1-inch | 2-cm cubes or into 1-inch | 2-cm thick slices. Coat them completely in cornstarch and shake off any excess. Prepare a serving platter by the stove and cover it with a few sheets of parchment or tempura paper. Heat about ¼ inch | 5 mm of oil over medium-high heat in the bottom of a flat-bottomed pan until a pinch of cornstarch immediately foams and subsides, and then add the dusted cubes to the hot oil piece by piece. Fry them all over, adding more oil as needed. When they are a golden brown, remove to the platter. Serve hot sprinkled with sea salt and fresh cilantro and/or chopped scallions. A dipping sauce may be prepared, but is not necessary.