Monday, November 12, 2018

Spring roll lasagna chez Huang

My mother used to make lasagna with dried noodles, which she would carefully boil until al dente before layering them into the pan with an assortment of fillings. And it was good.

Then someone said you didn’t need to boil the noodles first, that the sauce in the pan would cook them perfectly. And they were right. Those were even better.

Then fresh pasta came along and turned lasagna a couple of degrees more divine because of the lush texture that only freshly made noodles can provide.

And then I wanted lasagna one day, really bad, and didn’t have either dried or fresh lasagna noodles, and didn’t really want to go to the trouble of making homemade pasta. Yes, it’s definitely worth the trouble. But once in a while you just have to let laziness win, for sometimes - just sometimes - laziness leads to delicious things because lazy people are inventors. (That’s my excuse, anyway.)
Frozen (L) and fresh (R)

So I started rooting around. The pantry yielded zip by way of alternatives, but wait a minute, there in the back of the freezer was a package of spring rolls. And what are spring rolls but really thin egg pasta? I did some hasty calculations, realized it would work, and got everything ready.

If you have homemade marinara sauce ready, go with that for sure. But I write mainly about China’s foods for my job, so I rarely go to that bother. Instead, I generally have jars of Paul Newman or something sitting around for whenever spaghetti sauce is needed.

And so you see, the point of this exercise is to use whatever is available. If you don’t have ricotta cheese, try crème fraîche or drained cottage cheese. No mozzarella? Use some other mild cheese that looks good to you. Not a meat eater? No problem: sub in sautéed mushrooms.

Think of lasagna as a way to effortlessly clean out the refrigerator and pantry. But always, always have those spring rolls ready in the freezer. Try this and you’ll see what I mean.

Whereas some lasagnas can come across as leaden or overly starchy, this one is light and airy. That thin pasta absorbs the marinara as it cooks, turning into gentle wisps that glide between whatever filling strikes your fancy. This is also a great way to prepare ahead on the weekend, since it can easily be frozen and reheated. This is a winner.

Spring roll lasagna chez Huang
Huángjiā kăo qiāncéngmiàn 黃家烤千層麵
Italian via a short detour in China
Sausage & onions
Serves 6 to 8

1 (11 ounce | 312 g, or so) package frozen spring rolls, Wei Chuan brand recommended (see Tips)
Spray oil
1 bunch fresh spinach
2 (28 ounce | 737 g or so) jars of prepared marinara sauce, whatever flavor and brand you prefer
12 ounces | 340 g Italian sausages of any flavor or brand, crumbled or thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, chopped
3 hardboiled eggs, sliced
1½ cups | 400 g ricotta cheese, whole milk preferred
80 ounces | 225 g whole-milk mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
1 cup | 80 g coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

Ricotta, mozzarella, & eggs
1. Set the unopened package of spring rolls on the counter to gently defrost while you prepare everything. Line an 11-cup | 2-liter pan with parchment paper or foil, extending the paper or foil up the sides by about 1 inch | 2 cm, as this will give you even more room for the lasagna. Spray the paper or foil with oil and set the pan on a baking sheet. Arrange a rack in the center of your oven and set it to 400°F | 200°C.

2. Cut off the ends of the spinach and soak it in warm water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, as this will help loosen any soil. Swish it around in the water, changing the water as needed, until absolutely every grain of grit has been dislodged. Shake the spinach dry, shred it thinly, and microwave big handfuls of it at a time in a heatproof bowl for 1 minutes. Squeeze the liquid out of the spinach and set it in a work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the spinach.

3. Set a pan over medium heat and fry the sausage until most of the fat has been rendered. Drain off the fat, add the olive oil and onions, and fry these until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and continue to fry until the sausage is borderline crispy.

Scrunched up wrappers
4. Spread a thin layer of the marinara sauce in the pan. Place 2 spring roll sheets on top of the marinara sauce, scrunching them up a bit to make them fit so that they do not overlap. Spread another layer of marinara sauce on the sheets and add some of the meat and onion mixture, then a layer of spring rolls, then marinara sauce, then eggs, then spring rolls, then marinara sauce, then ricotta cheese, then spring rolls, then marinara sauce, then spinach and mozzarella cheese, then spring rolls… in other words, just keep layering things into the pan in whatever order you like. The only thing you need to do, really, is top the spring rolls with marinara sauce, as this turns the noodles soft and silky. You probably will have 25 spring roll sheets in all, so make the top layer out of 3 scrunched-up sheets topped with marinara sauce, and then sprinkle the Parmesan over the top. You probably won’t use all of the marinara sauce, so don’t push it. Make sure all of the spring rolls are carefully dabbed with the sauce, as otherwise those bits will turn hard and inedible.

5. Bake the lasagna uncovered on the baking sheet for 35 to 40 minutes, at which point the top will be browned and the sauce will be bubbling around the edges. Rest the lasagna for 15 to 20 minutes to give the pasta time to absorb the sauce, for this will make cutting and serving it a whole lot less sloppy. Cut the lasagna into squares as desired. Leftovers can be refrigerated and heated up in the microwave. You can also make this ahead of time and bake it for about 30 minutes, then cool it and freeze the lasagna. To reheat the lasagna, defrost it overnight in the refrigerator, and then cook as directed above for another 15 minutes or so, until hot all the way through.
Marco Polo lasagna


Spring roll wrappers and egg roll wrappers are pretty much the same thing, with the egg roll ones generally a little bit thicker. Use whatever you like.

I recommend frozen over fresh ones since the latter can go bad, and you rarely have an opportunity to notice that until you open it up, or at least that has been my experience. Plus, frozen spring roll wrappers are ready whenever you need them. Hurray for that.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Elephant ear cookies

You probably eaten (and loved) palmiers, those delightful swirls of puff pastry rolled up with nothing more than cinnamon and sugar in order to form simple, crunchy cookies. 

And I agree, those are indeed delicious, as well as elegant.

But how about something approximately a zillion times better? For that you need to try the Chinese version. 

And by the way, these are nothing close to elegant.

Instead of the classic palmier shape that has both sides curled toward the center (palmier is French for palm tree, but don’t ask me why these look like palm trees or fronds… I’d call these bunny heads for sure), the Chinese version is just rolled up in one direction with the regular filling. 
Yup, lamination

And so, if you are a fan of The Great British Baking Show, you might even recognize that the correct ancestors of these elephant ears very likely were French arlettes. That is why, in the immortal words of Paul Hollywood, you will find lamination galore. (For the Netflix deprived, lamination means lots of distinct layers.)

However, things suddenly turn decidedly decadent at this point. 

Not yet content with the sugar and spice level at this point, you will now sprinkle more cinnamon sugar on your work surface, dredge each slice in this topping, and then roll in out until it is the size of a large man’s hand. It won’t be as thick as a large man’s hand at this point, but have patience, for it has yet to be baked.

For when these cookies are slid into a hot oven, they will puff up enticingly. Even better, that extra sugar will caramelize around the edge and on the bottom, making this incredibly crispy and satisfyingly crunchy. 

Trails in the cinnamon sugar filling
In fact, they become so flaky that these are best eaten standing up in an empty bathtub. I’m not kidding.

You'll occasionally find these in Taiwanese-style (or even Hong Kong-style) bakeries under a variety of names, like krispies in English or buffalo ears (níuĕr 牛耳) in Chinese, so there doesn't seem to be any agreement anywhere, except that these are quite possibly the best little secret a bakery can have.

Elephant ear cookies
Dàxiàng ĕrduó sū 大象耳朵酥
Press the filling into the dough
Makes 6 enormous cookies

1 package (2 sheets, 17.3 ounces | 490 g) best quality frozen puff pastry
¼ cup | 50 g granulated (caster) sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (see Tips)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
Spray oil
½ cup | 100 g granulated (caster) sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Smoosh down the roll into a coil
1. Thaw the puff pastry as directed on the package, but keep it cold. Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl, and crush any lumps you happen across.

2. Set one rack in the center of your oven and heat it to 400°F (200°C). Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper and spray lightly with oil.

3. Unroll one sheet of puff pastry on a big piece of parchment paper and open it up. Keep the second sheet in the refrigerator, as puff pastry needs to remain cold until it’s shaped and baked. It’s ok if the sheet breaks along the fold lines, as you’ll be dealing with that soon enough. Gently roll out the dough without adding any extra flour until it is an even rectangle and is fairly smooth; the size is unimportant. Sprinkle half of the cinnamon-sugar mixture evenly over the surface, and then roll the puff pastry up from one of the long sides. If your kitchen is hot, transfer the roll to the refrigerator to chill and keep the sugar from melting while you repeat this step with the rest of the cookie ingredients, and then chill that second roll, too.
Sprinkle with the topping

4. Mix the topping ingredients together in a work bowl. You’ll need about a heaping tablespoon of the topping per cookie. Working on one chilled roll at a time, slice each crosswise into 3 even pieces. Sprinkle a teaspoon or two of the topping on the parchment paper, and then set one rolled piece on its end. Press it down gently to form a flattened coil.

5. Roll out the coil to make an oval disc about 8 x 4 inches (20 x 10 cm), sprinkling the rest of the topping on it, flipping it over a couple of times as you work, and then transfer it and any sugar underneath it to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with one more, keeping around 1 inch | 2 cm between the cookies, as they won’t spread much, but this will make them easier to remove later on. Sprinkle a teaspoon or so of the topping evenly over each cookie, and then slide in the oven. Work on the second sheet while the first sheet is in the oven, and keep this rhythm going so that you have one tray in the oven while the next tray of cookies is being formed. 
Roll out the coil into a cookie

6. Check the cookies at around 7 minutes and every minute after that. (My oven took about 10 minutes per sheet.) They are done when the edges are gently caramelized and the cookies are puffy and golden. Slide the parchment paper with the cookies off onto a cool, heatproof surface, and then once they are relatively easy to handle, peel them off of the paper to cool thoroughly on a cake rack. Repeat the rolling and baking until all of the cookies are done. I think you can store in an airtight container at room temperature, but to be honest I’ve never actually proceeded to the storing part of this recipe, as they disappear the moment they hit the cake rack.

Caramelization around the edges, too
Use really good quality frozen puff pastry here (not the knock-off brands), since you want to taste the butter and you want lots of layers. I usually buy Pepperidge Farms for this.

Likewise, the cinnamon should be fresh and not the musty stuff that’s been hanging around for ages. Health food stores often sell ground cinnamon in bulk so that you can buy a small amount at a time.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Hakka smoked chicken chez Huang

My father-in-law’s extended family served this dish only on very special occasions. Being thrifty Hakkas—who are as notorious as the Scots for being penny pinchers—protein was always doled out in small servings and bulked up with lots of vegetables, pickles, and rice. 

Even a dish as famous as this made only a brief appearance on the dining table before disappearing in a flurry of chopsticks. Definitely one of those you snooze, you lose situations. 

This recipe highlights the Hakka love for natural flavors and simplicity. Living as they do in relatively poor lands, the Hakka have developed a true knack for eking out sublime deliciousness from every part of an animal or plant.

A distant in-law's specialty!
Here is one of the more extravagant dishes ever to make its way out of a Hakka kitchen, for the chicken is smoked. Something this luscious would be enjoyed only rarely and in small portions, which perhaps made it taste even better.

My late father-in-law's eldest male uncle, whom we all referred to as Dabofu, was famous for his household's rendering of this dish. He was a man of considerable presence—tall and good-looking, with deep eyes that had a corona of blue surrounding the usual brown irises—and he had three wives. But the one thing my husband always mentions when he talks about Dabofu is his famous smoked chicken.

Dabofu and his wives were never willing to part with the recipe, but I've played around with it over the years, and this seems pretty darned close. My secret? Barley tea in the smoker. You see, rice hulls were the usual smoking ingredient with many Hakka (cheap, plentiful, useful… what’s not to love?), but as they are impossible to find, even in Whole Foods, I figured barley tea might do well, since it’s pretty close, and it does. Perfectly. You can find barley tea in most East Asian grocery stores, where it is usually sold under its Japanese name, mugi-cha, in Chinese stores as 大麥茶 dàmàichá, and in Korean places as bori-cha.
Barley tea and rice

Although nowadays we would say that one chicken serves 6 to 8, in a Hakka family only a quarter of the chicken would be served at a time. And so my husband only was able to savor a tiny sliver that one time he was ever a guest at Daobofu’s place. 

I make up for lost time and opportunity here by serving the whole batch to just the two of us—beer on the side, thank you very much—employing a very American attitude toward putting good chicken on the table. J.H. gets almost teary-eyed with joy at having someone in the kitchen finally get their dining priorities straight.

Hakka Smoked Chicken

Kèjiā xūnjī 客家熏雞
Serves 4 to 6
Fan dry the bird

Seasoned salt:
4 tablespoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole white peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
5 tablespoons sea salt

Either 2 pounds | 1 kg chicken wings or 1 whole fryer chicken, preferably kosher and/or free range
Boiling water, as needed
1 tablespoon seasoned salt for the wings, 2 tablespoons for a whole bird
¼ cup | 15 g loose barley tea (see headnotes)
¼ cup | 30 g raw rice of any kind
Spray oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1. First make the seasoned salt: Over medium-low heat, dry-fry (meaning don’t add any oil) all of the peppercorns, five-spice powder, fennel, and salt until the salt darkens and the peppercorns start to pop. Cool the salt and spices completely, and then grind them to a fine powder. Sieve the powder, discard any large bits, and store this in a covered jar in a dark area.

Surfaces absolutely dry
2. Start the chicken at least a day before you plan to serve it. Clean the chicken and pull out any pinfeathers. Lightly rub the chicken with a towel to remove any loose surface skin. With the wings, keep them in one piece, although you can remove the wing tips, if you prefer. With a whole chicken, tuck the wings under so that they lie flat against the body, but leave the legs untied so that the chicken can cook through quickly and easily.

3. Bring about 2 quarts | 2 liters water to a full boil in a tall pot that is just wide enough to hold the chicken. Have extra boiled water ready in case you need it. For wings, simply lower them into the pot, and for a whole chicken, lower the chicken into the pot with the breast side up, and add more water as needed to cover the chicken by at least 2 inches | 5 cm. Bring the pot to a boil again and then reduce the heat to maintain just a bare simmer.  Poach chicken wings for 10 minutes and a whole chicken for 15 minutes, then cover the pot and turn off the heat. Remove the wings after around 20 minutes, and the whole chicken after an hour or so, and drain thoroughly. Rub the chicken inside and out with the salt - about 2 teaspoons for wings and 1 tablespoon for a whole bird - paying special attention to the thicker areas. Cover the bird and refrigerate overnight.
Smoked up and ready

4. Set the chicken on a cake rack placed on a platter and air dry it with an electric fan, turning the chicken over every half hour or so to help the skin lose every drop of moisture, as this will allow the smoke to adhere to it later on. 

5. Put the barley tea and rice in the bottom of your smoker. Spray the rack with oil and place it in the smoker. Cover the smoker and set it over high heat. When smoke begins to billow out of the smoker, add your chicken. Smoke the wings for 10 minutes, remove the smoker from the heat, and then turn the wings over and smoke them another 5 minutes before letting the smoker cool down. For a whole bird, smoke it for about 25 minutes total. The good thing about using only barley tea and rice is that you won’t get any sour taste from the burned fuel like you if sugar is involved, so smoke away until the skin is as dark as you like. Remove the chicken from the smoker, cool for about 10 minutes, and then rub the surface with the sesame oil. Cut the wings in half, if you like, and the whole chicken into chunks. Place a small dish of the seasoned salt on the side in case someone would like this saltier.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Pig's feet and Cinderella

Simple, nourishing, and oh so comforting, these pig feet will convert you... that is if for some odd reason you haven’t yet been sucked in yet by the absolute deliciousness of trotters. I’ve showed them in various guises—these smoked ones are to die for—but it’s time to showcase a Taiwanese favorite: trotters with peanuts.

A prosaic name, yes. But Cinderella wasn’t much of a name, either, was it? And just like Cinderella, even the briefest brush with this will lead to love. I mean, I buy two whole trotters—we’re talking a foot-long each of foot—and it’s never enough for the two of us. 

This is everyday homestyle cooking in Taiwan. It’s also served to nursing mothers as part of their recovery and to help them produce milk. If that is what you are aiming for here, add a few slices of ginseng or angelica (當歸 dàngguī) from a good herbalist to the braise for extra warmth.

Speaking of Cinderella, did you know that the origin of this story lies in China? Yes indeedy. It comes from the Yŏuyáng zázŭ 酉陽雜俎 (Miscellany from Youyang), a literary sketchbook by Duàn Chéngshì 段成式 in the ninth century:
Ready to braise with garlic
After her mother and then her father dies, a beautiful young girl named Yèxiàn 葉限 is turned into a slave by her evil stepmother and lazy half-sister. She is befriended by a benefactor who, instead being a fairy godmother, is Yexian’s mother in the form of a golden fish.  

Charles Perrault’s classic, of course, varies in minor details, but in every other way it is almost a complete retelling of this Chinese fairytale. 

For example…
·     Yexian mysteriously appears at a party in a gorgeous gown provided by her benefactor.
·     She runs away from the party and loses her slipper.
·     Eventually that lost slipper—which, like Cinderella’s, is remarkably tiny—finds its way into the possession of a king.
·     The king then searches to find the shoe’s owner. 
·     He at last finds her, makes her his queen, and punishes the wicked stepmother and half-sister. (The full text in Chinese can be found at酉陽雜俎/續集/卷一.)

I’d love to see a remake of this, Chinese style!

Trotters and peanuts
Huāshēng zhūjiăo 花生豬腳
Serves 8 
Cut up by the butcher, of course
2 whole trotters (about 4 pounds | 2 kg); have your butcher split them lengthwise and crosscut them twice, for a total of 6 pieces per trotter
Tap water and boiling water, as needed
1 cup | 250 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
4 inches | 60 g fresh ginger, sliced
6 whole garlic cloves, slightly smacked and peeled, optional but delightful
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns (place in a tea ball or paper sachet)
1 tablespoon rock sugar
3 cups | 1 pound | 500 g fresh raw peanuts, soaked overnight

1. Place the trotters in a large pan, cover with tap water, and place on high heat. Bring the pan to a boil, lower the heat, and blanch the trotters for about 10 minutes to remove most of the scum. Rinse the trotters and place in a clean pan or sandpot.

2. Add the rice wine, ginger, garlic, peppercorn, and rock sugar to the trotters, and then pour in enough boiling water to cover. Bring the liquid to a boil again and then lower it to a bare simmer. Cover the trotters and simmer for around an hour, or until they are just tender, but not falling apart, as they will still be cooked some more. Remove from the heat and set aside. Remove the peppercorns and discard.
Aromatics: ginger and peppercorns

3. Place the drained peanuts in a pan, cover with water, bring to a boil, and then lower the heat. Simmer the peanuts until just tender. Drain and add to the trotters. Bring the liquid back to a boil and add mushroom seasoning or salt to taste. Turn off the heat and let the trotters and peanuts sit overnight to absorb all those great flavors. This can also be refrigerated for up to a week.

4. Skim off the fat and use it for something else, if you like. Bring the trotters to a boil and then simmer for about 10 minutes to heat them through. Serve hot.


If you plan to make this ahead of time and serve portions over a couple of days, don’t cook either the trotters or the peanuts to a state of collapse. They will cook more as they are reheated, and of course at that point you can tip them over the edge into absolute tenderness. 

I adore using sweetened black vinegar as a dipping sauce for the trotters and to stir into the broth with the peanuts. It cuts the fattiness perfectly. Just stir agave syrup or honey into balsamic vinegar, and that’s it.

For absolute perfection, use the syrup left over from your sweet pickled garlic cloves. And nibble on those black cloves in-between bites. Truly ambrosial.