Monday, September 30, 2019

Wontons in chile oil

Wontons appear all over southern China. In the United States, we most often see them served Guangdong-style, as shrimp and pork packets floating in a pork broth. Near the Yangtze, wontons are much larger and usually served in pale broths with shreds of omelet, laver seaweed (nori), and green onions.

This wonderful idea traveled west into the chile-laden embrace of Sichuan, where simple pork-filled packets are tossed in an addictively nose tingling sauce. Bright green rings of scallion ornament the top in this refined street food. I used to eat this on bamboo stools at the sides of busy alleys

This particular preparation from Sichuan is my favorite. It’s basically a street food, and I have very fond memories of eating it in busy alleys, sitting on a bamboo stool, watching the world bustle by, and luxuriating in the searing oil biting at my lips and tongue before the sweet porky juice popped out and doused the heat. I’d sweat and smile and order another bowl.

As in most Sichuanese dishes, the chile-laden sauce packs a punch, but here it is sensu­ously tempered by the juicy wonton filling. The sauce will also be slightly diluted by the water that clings to the soft wontons. So, serve extra chile oil or even more of the sauce on the side for those who want to sweat a bit.

The setup
This is an updated version of the recipe that can be found on page 298 of All Under Heaven. I love this recipe so much that I am always making it and fooling around with it, so here are some suggestions that will make your days much easier and much more filled with wontons, which is a great way to live your life.

Making the filling in a food processor really is the way to go here, and it also makes this dish incredibly easy.

Be sure to use 2 packages of wonton wrappers, which will give you a nice surplus of wontons to freeze.

Place the wontons on plastic wrap as you finish making them, as this is so much easier than a tea towel – it might not be traditional, but hey, I’m all about evolution. Be sure and mark up your book accordingly!

To freeze the wontons, freeze them as they are on the lined baking sheets, just be sure that they don’t touch each other. As soon as they are completely solid, transfer them to resealable freezer bags. You should toss these frozen wontons directly into the boiling water without defrosting them first.
Lots of seasoning... yay
Wontons in chile oil
Hóngyóu chăoshŏu  紅油炒手
Makes about 180 wontons and serves a whole lotta people

2 inches | 5 cm fresh ginger, more or less
1½ cups | 360 ml unsalted chicken stock, divided into ½ cup | 120 ml and 1 cup | 240 ml
1½ pounds | 500 g ground pork, preferably around 30 percent fat cut of pork, chilled
Sea salt to taste
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons mild rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
3 green onions, white parts only, trimmed and finely minced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Wonton wrappers:
2 (1 pound | 460 g) packages thin wonton wrappers
Flour for dusting

Sauce: (may be doubled)
3 tablespoons red chile oil with toasty bits, or to taste
3 tablespoons light soy sauce, or to taste
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, or to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely minced, optional
Sugar to taste

3 green onions, green parts only, trimmed and cut into thin rounds
Ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns

1. Cut the ginger into roughly ½-inch | 1-cm pieces, then whirl it in a food processor with ½ cup | 120 ml of the stock. Strain the liquid, squeezing out every last drop of ginger-flavored stock into a bowl before discarding the fibrous mass left behind.
Ready to go
2. Place the pork, ginger-flavored stock, salt, eggs, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, the whites of the green onions, sesame oil, and the black pepper in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse in the remaining 1 cup | 240 ml stock in incre­ments so that the pork absorbs all of the liquid. It will be light and fluffy at this point. Chill the filling for an hour or longer, if you have the time, as this will firm it up and make it easier to wrap.

4. Before you start wrapping the wontons, place 2 baking sheets next to your work area, cover them with plastic wrap, and have a couple of extra towels on the side to cover the filled wontons. Place a couple of tablespoons of cool water in a small bowl next to the filling bowl, as well as a flat piece of wood or a small blunt knife. (You’ll use both to wrap the wontons; see the movie below.) If you are going to cook these right away, pour water (at least 8 cups | 2 liters) into a large pot and bring it to a boil just before you are ready to cook. Wrap the wontons as shown below:

6. Mix together the sauce ingredients, taste and adjust the seasoning as desired, and divide the sauce among as many bowls you wish; double the amount of sauce if you really enjoy spicy flavors.

7. To cook the wontons, drop them in small handfuls into the boiling water while stirring with a wooden spoon. As soon as the water returns to a boil, pour in about 1 cup | 240 ml cold water. Bring the pot to a boil again and pour in another cup | 240 ml of cold water. When the pot boils a third time, the wontons should be floating gracefully.

8. Use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to gently remove the wontons into the prepared bowls, draining off as much of the water as you can. Toss them lightly in the sauce and sprinkle with the chopped green onions and the ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns to taste. Serve immediately.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Strange flavor peanuts

The name alone for this dish makes me happy. The other plusses are that these are dead simple to make and are absolutely tasty and crunchy, and are wonderful to have on hand, so prepare to make a lot after this first batch.

“Strange flavor” is a Sichuanese term that is applied to quite a few dishes. Usually it means that there is a complex number of seasonings going on in there that will fight for your attention. In this case, the toasted peanuts are covered with a crispy sugar shell spiced with all sorts of good things – namely smoked paprika, chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, black pepper, and cumin – and balanced with a nice jolt of salt to keep things on track.

These are, in a word, bar snacks with an attitude. And for the record, my husband refers to them as weird nuts.

It used to be that this recipe was a whole lot more difficult to prep, because back in the day we didn’t have peanuts with the skins removed. That meant toasting the nuts and then rubbing them in a towel to knock off most of the bitter red skins. Yes, it wasn’t backbreaking work, but this extra step always made me think twice about dedicating the necessary time to pulling the ingredients together.

Nowadays, Chinese shops and organic markets often have these nude peanuts for sale, so buy a couple of packages when you run across them.

A gorgeous load of spices
The basic recipe for this calls for toasting the peanuts in an oven (a toaster oven works nicely here), tossing them over the heat with a barely caramelized sugar syrup that evenly coats each nut, and then sprinkling in the seasonings, as well as a bit of starch to keep things tidy. You end up with a nice pile of expertly flavored peanuts that gain serious crunch as they cool down.

Once you master this basic recipe, think about the other flavors you like and start experimenting accordingly. Five spice powder works well in here, as does a bit of curry powder or powdered ginger or even pumpkin spice. You can 86 the chiles and amp up other seasonings, or make them relatively mild when you have kids ready to pounce on them.

The only caveat would be to not add anything moist, like fresh garlic or ginger or green onions. The seasonings have to be absolutely dry so that the crunchy shell doesn’t melt and goo up.

The basic recipe for toasted peanuts is something you should have in your permanent repertoire. It’s super easy and a whole lot tidier to make than fried nuts. I’ll set it off below the main recipe here so that you can refer to it as needed, and it is also included on page 411 of All Under Heaven.

Strange flavor peanuts
Guàiwèi huāshēng  怪味花生
Makes about 3 cups
Caramelization is underway

1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground chiles
1 tablespoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Spray oil, if using foil for the baking tray
1 cup | 225 g sugar
¾ cup | 180 ml water
1 pound | 450 g toasted skinless peanuts (see recipe below)

1. Combine the spices, salt, and cornstarch in a small work bowl. Have a large, rimmed baking tray ready and line it with Silpat or foil sprayed with oil.

2. Place the sugar and water in a wok and swirl them around a few times to ensure that the sugar is wetted all the way through. Bring the sugar water to a boil over medium heat, swirling it now and then. Cover the pan for about a minute so that the steam will wash down any crystals, and then turn the heat up to medium high. Swirl the pan now and then, rather than stir it, and as soon as it takes on a golden tinge (but is not yet caramel), toss in all of the peanuts.

3. Use a spatula to toss the peanuts in the nuts until they are thoroughly coated. Remove the wok from the heat as you rapidly sprinkle the spice mixture over them, and then return to the heat as you quickly toss them to distribute the seasonings evenly.

4. Remove the wok from the heat and wait about 30 seconds for the sugar coating to start to cool down and harden. Then, scrape the nuts onto the lined baking tray. Scoot the nuts around to separate them as much as possible. Cool the nuts thoroughly and store in a closed container.
The sugars turn golden...

Toasted peanuts
Kăo huāshēng 烤花生
Makes about 3 cups
Toasted skinless peanuts

1 pound | 450 g raw peanuts, with or without the skins

1. Heat the oven or a toaster oven to 275°F | 135°C. Place the peanuts in a baking pan large enough to hold them in a single layer – the bottom of the broiler pan that may have come with your oven works well. Put the peanuts in the oven.

2. Slowly toast the nuts for about 1½ hours. Because the edges of your pan will be hotter than the center, you’ll want to shake the pan once in a while and stir the nuts occasionally. When the peanuts start to smell cooked and begin to split along the center, taste one; if the rawness seems to have disappeared, taste a couple more from different parts of the pan just to be sure. It doesn’t matter if the nuts are crisp yet, as that will happen once they cool down.

3. Pour the peanuts into a wide, heatproof bowl and let them come to room temperature. Store in a sealed container.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Chinatown's almond cookies

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by San Francisco’s Chinatown. Going there was a rare treat, but I always knew what I wanted when we got there: a box of almond cookies.

Packed up in a pretty pink box with a string tie, they were unlike anything we ate down in San Jose, which was pretty Midwestern when it came to food then. 

To me, Chinese almond cookies tasted more like Chinatown than any other sweet I tried, not that there was ever that huge a selection.

Later, when I was older, I tried to relive that experience, only to find that the flavors and textures were off. The cookies were bland instead of exciting, tasted of fat and sugar rather than almonds, and tended to be slightly soft, not tantalizingly crispy, as I remembered.

And so, of course, I had to rectify this.

Perfect snacking
As you can see, I’ve been on a bit of a warpath lately. Chinese American food is sooo good, but we never get to really eat it anymore. It’s as American as, say, Tex-Mex or Red Italian, and I am all in favor of seeing it make a genuine comeback. But cooked with pride and made with even better ingredients than before, of course.

Almond cookies seem like an obvious choice for this first salvo. The original inspiration for this recipe came from a 1979 cookbook called Better Than Storebought by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie. I’ve made a lot of adjustments over the years, though, to make it more almond-y, less sweet, and a bit healthier. They even have that golden shiny glaze and crinkly fissures on top. 

I hope you agree that these are just what we need for snacktime.

Updated Chinatown almond cookies
Tèzhì Tángrénjiē xìngrén bĭnggān 特製唐人街杏仁餅乾
Chinese American
Makes 32

¾ cup | 145 g organic solid white shortening, or good lard
½ cup | 100 g white sugar
¼ cup | 45 g coconut sugar, or packed dark brown sugar
Whip the sugars, fat, & egg together
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon almond extract
¾ cup | 100 g ground almonds, or almond flour
1¾ cups | 165 g unbleached pastry flour
¾ teaspoon sea salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg, lightly beaten
32 whole almonds, either unblanched or blanched (i.e., with or without skin)

1. Place the shortening (or lard), both sugars, 1 egg, and both extracts in the bowl of a food processor equipped with a metal blade. Whiz it for around a minute, stopping the machine now and then to scrape down the sides, until you have a very light, creamy mixture.

2. Mix together the ground almonds (or almond flour), pastry flour, salt, and baking soda in a small work bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the food processor and pulse the cookie dough until it is evenly mixed.
Make logs & chill
3. Have 2 sheets of parchment paper or foil ready. Scrape out half of the cookie dough onto each sheet, spread it out into a log-like shape, and then roll the dough up in the paper or foil like a cigar. Freeze the dough for about 20 minutes, just until it is solid but still easy to cut.

4. Place 2 racks near the center of your oven and turn it on to 275°F | 135°C; don’t use the convection setting. Line 2 baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper.

5. Cut each log of dough into 16 even pieces. (This is easy: cut each log in half, then each piece into half again, then half again, then half again; see Tip.) Place them on the lined sheets about 2 inches | 5 cm apart.

6. Brush each slice with the beaten egg, and then press a whole almond in the center. Bake the cookies for 25 minutes. Rotate the sheets from top to bottom and back to front, and then increase the heat to 325°F | 160°C. Continue to bake them for about 10 minutes more. When they are golden brown, remove them from the oven and let them cool to room temperature. Keep them in an airtight container or freeze for longer storage.

Oven ready

If you can hunt down some good lard, try that. It’s wonderful.

Even better, make your own lard: Cut some chilled pork fat (it’s much easier to work with when it’s very cold) into small dice. Place the fat in a saucepan, add a couple of tablespoons of water, cover the pan, and set it over medium-low heat. Stir the fat as needed to keep the solids from burning. As soon as you have a nice layer of fat on the bottom, remove the lid so that the water can evaporate and continue to cook the fat, adjusting the heat as necessary. It is ready when the solids are a toasty brown. Drain the fat through a sieve into a container, and then refrigerate it. 

The toppings
Lard will keep a very long time if kept cold. And be sure to save the cracklings – one of my mother-in-law’s favorite sneaky snacks was white rice topped with cracklings, a bit of melted lard, and a drizzle of soy sauce. I have to agree with her here… this is pretty amazing stuff and is much better than it sounds, all buttery and crunchy.

Whenever you need to cut up things like pastry dough or cookie dough, see if you can make a number that is easily divisible by 4, like 8, 16, 32, and 64. The reason for this is that you then don’t need to measure the dough with a ruler, but rather simply slice pieces in half until you have the correct number of pieces. Brainlessly easy.

Monday, September 9, 2019

It's Moon Cake time!

This Friday is the Moon Festival, or Zhongqiu jie (Mid-Autumn Festival) as they call it in Chinese. When it comes to food, this day means one thing and one thing only: moon cakes.

Up until only a few years ago, I had tackled the other two of the big three Chinese holidays - Chinese New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival - and to be honest, I really didn't break a sweat when it came to those foods. I'd been making those dishes most of my married life, and not to boast, but after over three decades in a Chinese household, I probably could wrap a rice tamale blindfolded with the same ease that a Sandinista could assemble a semiautomatic weapon in the dark on a moonless night. 

But one holiday food eluded me successfully... until now, that is.
My assorted molds

A homemade moon cake was one of those quixotic passions that poked its head up irritatingly on schedule once a year when I looked at the burgeoning displays of garish moon cake boxes in the Chinese grocery and dreaded the looming onslaught of pastries that were too sweet, too greasy, to old, and too filled with chemicals - not to mention too too too expensive - but which I'd have to deal with anyway because it's just part of the Moon Festival, sort of like the dreaded fruitcakes and Christmas hard candies of my childhood.

You see, I was spoiled. I knew what a perfect moon cake was supposed to taste like, but the stuff in the stores could never hold a candle to my idea of the ultimate moon cake: During my initial year in Taiwan, the mom in my host family handed me a freshly baked coconut moon cake on the Moon Festival. That was, of course, also my very first moon cake, and nothing ever measured up to it in the succeeding decades. 

It was time for all that to change.

So, a couple of years ago I gave myself a self-imposed challenge: make moon cakes as good as Auntie Lee's. This was not easy, and the search for this recipe possessed me for a very long time. The problem was that no cookbook in either Chinese or English (except for the one by Sichuan master chef Chen Kenmin) had a recipe that was much help. 
Nabbing a wedge

What I wanted was crumbly, light, ever-so-slightly chewy cookie dough wrapped around luscious fillings. This was trial and lots of error, but let me tell you, these are the best moon cakes ever!

More on this subject to come over the coming posts. For now, I am going to whet your appetite with a nutty filling that a Nanjing friend said made the absolute best moon cake he had tasted. And although that was a couple of years ago, I still bask in the warm glow of that compliment. 

Today's moon cake recipe is Cantonese on the surface, but it envelops a Suzhou-style crunchy nut and fruit center. It was adapted from the repertoire of renowned Sichuanese chef Chen Kenmin 陳建民. (His son, Chen Ken’ichi 陳建一, later gained fame as “Iron Chef Chinese” on the Japanese and American programs, Iron Chef.)

Be warned, homemade moon cakes are as different from store-bought as night and day, but few Chinese make their own anymore, perhaps because a good recipe has (at least until now) been hard to find.

Although the recipe may appear long, don’t be discouraged — it’s not difficult. And it produces moon cakes that are fresh, flavorful and not overly sweet, with caramel syrup deepening the colors and aromas. Dark brown sugar and butter are used in the center instead of the usual white sugar and lard in this updated version, and both dried cranberries and green pumpkin seeds glitter like colorful sequins, adding gently tart and nutty touches to these beloved pastries. The drawings are, of course, from All Under Heaven.

Fruit and nut moon cakes 
Wǔrén yuèbǐng 五仁月餅  
Makes 10 large (three-inch) moon cakes, or about 30 (one-inch) mini moon cakes

Caramel syrup:
2½ cups | 300 g powdered sugar
1 cup | 250 ml water (divide in half)
3 tablespoons white rice vinegar or cider vinegar

Fruit and nut filling:
25 large dried red Chinese dates
1 cup  | 250 ml waterwater
½ cup | 60 g hulled pumpkin seeds
¼ cup | 30 g dried cranberries or golden raisins
¾ cup | 90 g chopped toasted walnuts
½ cup | 70 g toasted sesame seeds
½ cup | 60 g sliced almonds
¼ cup | 60 ml Chinese rose-scented white liquor (Meiguilu), or vodka
2 tablespoons caramel syrup (recipe above)
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup | 50 g dark brown sugar, packed
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon sticky rice flour (Mochiko brand recommended)

2 cups | 260 g all purpose flour
⅔ cup | 80 g pastry or cake flour 
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon | 190 ml caramel syrup
½ cup | 125 ml peanut or vegetable oil
Extra flour as needed

1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons Chinese rose-scented white liquor (Meiguilu), or vodka
1 tablespoon caramel syrup

1. To make the caramel syrup, place the powdered sugar and ½ cup water in a steel pan (so that you can easily see the sugar change color). Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, cover for a few minutes so that the steam washes down the sugar crystals, and then uncover. Add the vinegar and bring the pan back to a boil without stirring. Quickly boil the sugar syrup for about 10 minutes, until it starts to turn amber. When it is an even golden brown, lower the heat to medium-high and then add the rest of the water – be careful, as the caramel will boil furiously at this point, so direct the pan away from your face. As the boiling starts to simmer down, stir the caramel with a silicone spatula until the caramel is smooth. Pour the caramel into a heatproof measuring cup and let it cool to room temperature; you should have about 1¼ cups | 310 ml.

Pat into the mold
2. For the filling, cook the dates in the water until they are soft and the water has been absorbed. Remove the dates from the heat, and when cool enough to handle, pit them if they are not already pitted. Carefully chop them into a fine paste, using a knife so that you can remove any pits or shards that you come across. Place the date paste in a medium work bowl. Add the rest of the filling ingredients to the date paste and mix well. Divide it into 10 even mounds if you are making large moon cakes or 30 small mounds if you are making the mini cakes. (You may make the filling ahead of time and refrigerate it covered.)

3. To make the dough, place the flour in a medium work bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the oil and caramel. Mix these together gently to form a very soft dough. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons flour on a smooth work surface and roll the dough out into an even 20-inch rope; cut this into 10 pieces, each 2 inches wide. (If you are making the mini cakes, roll it into an even 15-inch rope and cut it into ½-inch pieces.) Roll each piece into a soft ball; cover the dough you are not immediately working on.

Knock out the moon cake
4. Heat the oven to 325°F | 160°C; place a rack in the upper third of the oven to keep the bottoms of the pastries from burning; you will cook one sheet of pastries at a time. Line two cookie sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Mix together the glaze; have two pastry brushes, a thin spatula, your moon cake mold, and a pastry scraper ready. Dust the inside of your moon cake mold heavily with flour and knock out the excess.

5. Large moon cakes: Working on one pastry at a time, pat out one piece of dough into a 5½-inch | 14 cm circle, making the center slightly mounded; place a portion of the filling in the center and wrap the dough around the filling. Lightly roll the now large ball between your palms so that the soft dough evenly covers the filling. Roll one side of the ball in some flour and then place the ball flour side down inside the moon cake mold. Press lightly but firmly on the ball so that it fills the mold. Then, turn the mold upside-down and whack it on your counter to release the pastry; it may take a few tries before it comes loose. Place the pastry on the prepare cookie sheet. Use one pastry brush to dust off any excess flour and use the other pastry brush to coat the moon cake all over with the glaze; repeat with the rest of the dough and filling until you have 10 moon cakes. Small moon cakes: Do the same thing as above, only roll the dough out into circles about 3 inches | 8 cm wide; the filling should be rolled into balls roughly 1 inch | 2 cm in diameter.

6. Bake the moon cakes until they are a golden brown, around 25 minutes for the small cakes and 35-40 minutes for the large ones. Cool the pastries completely and serve them cut in wedges, preferably with cups of hot tea.
The. Absolute. Best.


The best Chinese dates are found in herbal shops where the turnover is fast and the dried ingredients are at their best. Look for plump, shiny dates with no sign of insects or powder at the bottom of the bag.

Chinese dates that are sold as “pitted” were done so by machines, so beware of the occasional pit or chips.

The dough is best made by hand, as food processors and mixers will excite the gluten in the flour and make the pastry tough. And, both patting out the dough and rolling it between the hands softens the caramel in it so it becomes more malleable.

If you don’t have such a mold (which can easily be found online or sometimes in Chinese housewares shops), you can use any other 3-inch cake mold, or even a plain cupcake mold to shape the pastries. (Note: true round moon cake molds are about 1¼ inches deep and 3 inches across, while the smaller molds with three 1-inch-square depressions can be used for mini moon cakes; shallower ones than that are used for making confections like green bean tea cakes, or lüdou gao.)

Moon cake molds come in many sizes and shapes. You can make moon cakes in just about any that are deep enough to hold two layers of pastry plus a generous layer of filling, which means at least 1-inch deep. The larger round molds I use have a little over a half cup capacity, while the small square ones hold about two tablespoons.

This pastry has a high sugar content, so to protect the bottoms of the moon cakes from burning before the pastries are completely cooked, place the racks in the upper third of your oven and use either double-thick sheets or two baking sheets placed on top each other for extra insulation.

Store the cooled moon cakes in a covered container. They can be preserved for longer storage if packed in freezer bags and frozen.

Illustrations from All Under Heaven (McSweeney's + Ten Speed Press, Spring 2016)
Copyright (c) 2015, Carolyn Phillips