Monday, March 25, 2019

Casserole for the Vernal Equinox

As the seasons slowly change and we drift from cold weather to warm and from rain to sun, lots of comfort food goes to the top of my needs. Too much change is in the air, and I want something simple and delicious to keep me grounded This simple casserole fits my needs perfectly.

Even better, I can do the drudge work ahead of time here. As eggplants always seem to want to dissolve into sludge before I’m ready to eat them, I cut them up into pieces and either deep-fry or bake them within a day or two of bringing them home. Either way, I slice the eggplants lengthwise and then cut them crosswise into halfmoons. Then, if I’m in the mood to bake, I toss them with oil and roast them until they are brown. Otherwise, I deep-fry them in small batches to achieve a similar level of caramelization.

The other main component is the bean curd. You can use whatever kind you like. For this kind of dish, I tend to prefer regular doufu, since it’s firm enough to withstand the braising without crumbling, and yet it’s tender enough to form a link with the eggplant. Because the eggplant has been fried or baked, I don’t fry the doufu, as this provides more visual and textural contrast.

Gorgeous Asian eggplants
The last-minute assembly is a great reason to have this on your short list of cool weather dishes. All you really need to do is toss everything together and bring it to a boil. If you simmer the casserole for a short time, the eggplant will stay chunky, which is nice. Or, you can simmer it slowly for an hour or so, by which point the doufu will turn spongy and the eggplant will break down into a silky sauce. And that is incredibly sexy. 

Eggplant and bean curd casserole
Qiézĭ dòufŭ bào 茄子豆腐煲
Cantonese cuisine
Serves 4

2 pounds (or so) Asian eggplant (aubergines)
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons minced ginger
½ cup | 125 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
¼ cup | 60 ml oyster sauce or vegetarian oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
Water, as needed
14 ounces | 400 g regular bean curd
3 or 4 scallions, green parts only, coarsely chopped

1. Cut off the stem ends of the eggplant and then slice the eggplants lengthwise in half. Cut the eggplants crosswise into halfmoons about ¾ inch | 2 cm wide. If you want to roast the eggplant, toss the slices in some oil, place them in one layer on a rimmed pan, and bake them at 375ºF | 190 ºC. Toss them every 15 minutes or so, and remove when they are caramelized all over. To deep-fry them, put about 1 inch | 2.5 cm oil in a wok or frying pan and set over medium heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, fry the eggplant in small handfuls until caramelized. The eggplant can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated.

2. Pour the sesame oil into a sandpot or saucepan and set it over medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger, and then stir until the fragrance is released. Add the eggplant, rice wine, oyster sauce, and sugar. Cut the bean curd into 3 equal slices, and then cut each slice into 4 triangles. Add the bean curd to the eggplant and pour in enough water to almost cover everything. 

3. Bring the liquid to a full boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer at least until the bean curd is heated through, about 20 minutes. Or, you can simmer it until the eggplant breaks down and the sauce is reduced to a thick syrup. Either way, keep an eye on the liquid so that the pan doesn’t boil dry and burn.

4. Just before serving, taste and adjust the seasoning. Toss in the scallions and heat for a minute or two to barely wilt them. Serve immediately with hot steamed rice.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Matcha panna cotta made better

We first enjoyed this at a Japanese restaurant with a distinctly fusion-y bent. There was Thai hidden in some of the dishes, as well as Chinese, as well as other delicious influences, and I liked them all, but what really bowled me over was this dessert. And I just could not find a recipe for it.

Part of my problem was its name: it was called matcha custard. And this didn’t taste like it had eggs in it. But then a flash of inspiration struck, and some Japanese panna cotta recipes sent me on more or less the right path. (By the way, matcha is green Japanese tea powder.)

However, these ended up too sweet. Nobody else was combining silky plain panna cotta with a gentle layer of beautiful matcha syrup. Chinese and Japanese versions of European desserts always take the sweetness down many notches, which is part of what makes them so refreshing and so very easy to devour.

Fresh panna cotta
Everybody else seemed to be putting the matcha in the pudding, too, and I didn’t want that. They all called for cream and half-and-half, but the one I tasted was not that rich or cloying. It was a puzzle.

What I really, really wanted was a lovely contrast between white and green, between bitter and sweet, between liquid and trembly panna cotta. It took a bit of trial and error, but I think I’ve got it. Let me know if you agree.

Panna cotta with matcha syrup
Cháfěnjiàng năidòng  搽粉漿奶凍
Italian via Japanese by way of Taiwan... maybe
Serves 5 to 6

Panna cotta:
¼ cup | 60 ml cool water
1 envelope (about 1 tablespoon) unflavored gelatin 
2½ cups | 590 ml whole milk
2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract

¼ cup | 50 g white sugar
1 to 1½ tablespoons fine matcha powder (see Note)
¼ cup | 60 ml boiling water
Small pinch of sea salt

1. Place the water in a small pan and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Give the gelatin about a minute to bloom, and then heat the mixture over low heat until all of the gelatin has melted. Stir it once or twice before removing it from the heat.

2. Pour the milk into a large saucepan and add the sugar and salt. Heat this over medium-high heat, stirring it once in a while, until bubbles form around the edge of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in both the gelatin and vanilla. 
Don't boil the milk - you just want bubbles

3. Set out five or six ½-cup | 80 ml bowls—tall, rather than wide, are especially nice here. (Pretty jam jars work well, too.) Strain the milk mixture among the bowls, and then let the milk come to room temperature. Cover the bowls with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

4. To make the sauce, place the sugar and matcha in a small saucepan. Whisk in the boiling water until no more lumps remain. Stir in the salt. Bring to a bare simmer and then cool to room temperature. When the custards are set, strain the syrup over them, so that each bowl has a lovely green pool on top. Serve the chilled custards with small spoons.


Use very finely ground matcha tea for this. You don't need a lot, but it should be good quality, since it's the main flavoring agent here.

I strain both the milk mixture and the syrup through a fine sieve. This gives both the panna cotta and the syrup a lovely, silky texture. It's a small bother, but totally worth it.

You can turn this into eight desserts, if you wish. Just use smaller cups. But I'm greedy.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Something fit for a Sichuan feast

Pork hocks are severely under-appreciated parts of the animal, so much so that I usually can only find them in markets that cater to people who really know how to eat the best parts of the pig, namely Latino and Chinese places. 

Nowadays high-end butchers are finally beginning to offer them, too, so see if you can get grass-fed pigs, for they taste so much better than factory farm ones.

This dish is simply wonderful. The thick layer of fat slowly melts down during the braise and turns into a creamy blanket for the juicy meat. And surrounding it all is probably the best part of all—the skin—for it takes on a silky texture that offers yet one more bit of textural contrast. 

Most of the time, pork braises that feature the spicy fermented bean sauce of Sichuan known as là dòubànjiàng use only small chunks or ribbons of meat, and so the porky flavor and meaty texture is easily lost in all of those fireworks.

But if you use a chubby hock like here, the meat gets to keep its individuality. It also has enough heft to stand apart from the sauce, so that when you take a bite, you’ll first be pleasantly assaulted by the chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, but then these will fade away as your teeth sink into the meat and other, more earthy flavors and juicy textures take over.

Absolutely delectable
This dish is only vaguely spicy after this long braise, but that is what you want for in a fancier, more classical dish like this. Traditionally, this would be one of the centerpieces of your banquet, and you want each course to have a different amount of heat, numbness, saltiness, and even sweetness, so that your guests enjoy a wonderful array of flavors as they dine.

Dòubànjiàng (both spicy and mild versions) are finally starting to get some recognition outside of China, and for good reason: these offer remarkably tasty ways to jump-start the flavors in braises. You usually find them in dishes featuring things like freshwater fish, chicken, eggplant, and (of course) pork, for they are complex pastes made out of things like ground chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, salt, and moldy beans. The moldy beans are what set off the fermentation in this thick mahogany brew, and they are also what give us such foods of the gods as soy sauce, so think of these as your slimy little friends.

I’ve made this sort of paste from scratch, including soaking-steaming-drying-wetting-molding both fava beans and soy beans. It’s a bit smelly, and my husband thinks I'm more than a bit crazy, but that way I get to have as much fermented bean sauce as I want, so I’m definitely not knocking it. Going this level of granular in the kitchen also gives me a better understanding of what goes into making China’s magnificent battery of fermented sauces, and also what to look for when I really need a fix and don’t have time to waste. See the Note below for some suggestions.

Again, think about making this sort of dish for a party, because it really is festive food. It looks incredibly beautiful, too, and if your diners are sophisticated, the surprise of being served a perfectly done pork hock will bowl them over. And even though it looks and tastes complicated, this dish is a timesaver, for you should make it a couple of days ahead so that it has time to simmer and sit, which matures the flavors in amazing ways. You then only need to do a couple simple steps after that, and you're done.

Keep this recipe in your hip pocket for those times you really need to impress.

Spicy braised Sichuan pork hock
Dòubàn zhŏuzi  豆瓣肘子
Sichuan cuisine
Serves 6

1 fresh pork hock (about 2 pounds | 1 kg)
Trivet in the pan
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup | 80 g Sichuan spicy fermented bean sauce (là dòubànjiàng, see Note)
2 tablespoons | 15 g finely chopped ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 scallion, chopped
1 teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 ounce | 25 g yellow rock sugar
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 g Shaoxing rice wine
2 quarts | 2 liters unsalted (or low salt) chicken stock, divided in half

To finish:
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 bunch spinach or other greens, washed carefully, dried, and lightly chopped
Chopped scallions

1. Place the hock in a narrow 4-quart | 4-liter saucepan. Cover it with water and bring the pan to a full boil. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and blanch the pork for about 20 minutes to remove most of the impurities, which will give you a much nicer-tasting piece of pork. Dump out the water and rinse both the pork and the pan.

2. Set a small trivet at the bottom of the pan and place the hock on top of that. This will help keep the pork skin from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

3. Pour the oil in a wok set over medium heat. Add the bean sauce, ginger, ginger, garlic, scallion, and peppercorns. Stir the aromatics until the paste starts to bubble. Add the rock sugar, soy sauce, rice wine, and half of the stock to the wok. Raise the heat to high and simmer for about 15 minutes. Pour this over the pork in the saucepan and top it off with the rest of the stock. (This thin liquid should come up about halfway on the pork hock. It will thicken up later on.) 

Ready for its long braise
4. Bring the uncovered pan to a full boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. The sauce will probably froth at this point, so don’t cover it yet. After about 15 minutes, when the sauce has settled down, cover the pan closely, reduce the heat to its lowest setting, and slowly cook the hock for around 2½ hours, carefully turning the hock over a couple of times. If the bones fall out, that’s ok, as the pork ought to be nicely tender at this point. 

5. Remove the pan from the heat and let it come to room temperature. Taste the sauce and make any adjustments you want at this point. It should be thick, velvety, and full-flavored. Place the pork in a 1-quart | 1-liter heatproof bowl with the pointy end of the hock down, add the sauce to about 1 inch | 2 cm from the top, cover, and refrigerate for at least one day and up to four. (You can freeze it if you need to store it longer.) Pour the rest of the sauce into another container and use it for something else, like braised bean curd. 

6. Set the cold bowl in a steamer or pan fitted with a trivet. Add water to the bottom of the pan and slowly bring the water to a full boil. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Steam the pork for 1 hour. Remove it from the steamer and let it cool down for about 10 minutes. 

7. Use a turkey baster or ladle to transfer the sauce to a wok. Set a rimmed plate or shallow bowl over the pork and then invert the pork onto it. Boil the sauce for 10 to 15 minutes on high to concentrate the flavors. Mix the cornstarch into the water to make a slurry. When the sauce is covered with bubbles, stir in the slurry so that it doesn't lump up, and then boil the sauce quickly for about 30 seconds to cook off any raw taste in the cornstarch. Pour this over the hock.

8. Add the sesame oil in the wok and set it over high heat. When the oil starts to smoke, add the spinach. (Do not add any salt, as the sauce will already be savory enough.) Toss it around over the heat until it turns an emerald green, and then arrange this in a nest around the pork hock. Sprinkle the dish with the chopped scallions and serve with a small knife to help cut the hock into thin wedges and a spoon for the sauce.
One of my go-to brands

I like the Sichuan bean sauces made in Taiwan. I’ve used them for decades, and the flavor has been very consistent. Lots of Mainland brands claim to be made in Pixian nowadays, but the demand for them is so high that I’ve found many to be lacking in flavor and depth. If you’d like to try Taiwan’s brands, check out Haha and Szechuan. I like to get these in small cans like the one on the right, since the sauce stays fresher that way. I just scrape out any leftover sauce into a clean jam jar, label it, and refrigerate it.

Monday, March 4, 2019

My favorite Cantonese deli side dish

This is a classic side dish in Cantonese delis, the sort of thing that supplies a bit of veg to your plate of rice and, say, char siu or poached chicken. 

In and of itself, blanched lettuce with oyster sauce is absolutely delicious, but it’s even better when sidled up to something super flavorful and meaty like that.

If you’ve never had cooked lettuce, you are in for a delightful surprise. Only the Chinese could look at a big head of iceberg and transform it into something so perfectly delectable. 

A quick blanch rids the lettuce of its slightly bitter and boring edge—and the emphasis here is on quick, because you really do not EVER want to eat soggy lettuce, cooked or otherwise.

The brilliant part here is the sauce, and it’s usually what most people get wrong. You never stir-fry the lettuce with the sauce, as that leads to sogginess (see above). 

Cook like a deli chef!
Instead, you whip yourself up a simple warm salad dressing. 

Really, that’s all this sauce is. But it’s so utterly silky thanks to that undercurrent of the sea and garlic and slick of oil that it will reshape your thoughts on salad dressing. 

Blanched lettuce with oyster sauce
Háoyóu shēngcài  蠔油生菜
Guangdong cuisine
Serves 4 as a side

1 head iceberg (or other crispy) lettuce, about 1 pound | 500 g
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil
1 quart | 1 liter boiling water

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons oyster sauce (Lee Kum Kee is the best)
1 teaspoon sugar
Rip the thing apart
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce

1. Rinse the lettuce, remove the core, and tear the head into pieces about 2 inches | 5 cm long—in other words, bite-sized. Ripping the leaves apart makes them crispier, and also gives them a whole lot more visual appeal. Plus, it feels good to just vent on a head of lettuce.

2. Have a colander set in the sink and a low serving bowl or rimmed serving dish ready. Add the salt and oil to the boiling water, and then stir in the lettuce. Blanch the lettuce for mere seconds—as soon as you see bright green, the lettuce is done. It should still be very crispy, but will have lost its raw edge. Dump the lettuce and water into the colander and let the lettuce drain thoroughly while you prepare the sauce.

3. Set a wok or frying pan over low heat and add the oil and garlic. Let the garlic sputter in the oil for a few minutes, since you want it to release its flavor without browning. When the garlic is translucent, stir in the oyster sauce, sugar, and soy sauce. Keep stirring this over low heat until the sauce bubbles and comes together. Immediately remove from the heat and add the drained lettuce. Toss quickly and serve. 

Here's what you want for the sauce

Romaine lettuce also works just fine here.

As the lettuce sits, it will begin to dump lots of liquid into the bowl, for its cells are collapsing. That’s totally fine. You can pour off the liquid, if you like, as the sticky sauce will have coated the leaves very well by then.

If you want to go meatless, use vegetarian oyster sauce. Again, Lee Kum Kee’s version is the best.

Monday, February 25, 2019


You are surely familiar with limoncello, that wonderfully citrus aperitif that smells and tastes of summer and sunlight. It’s one of the many things that make me so happy Italy exists.

But as good as this liqueur is with lemons, it’s even better with Buddha’s hand citron. 

A couple of weeks ago I showed you how to make candied Buddha’s hand citron, and I really hope you took my advice and made a batch, because that is one extraordinary candy. (If your excuse is that you don’t have this kind of citron in your area, try grapefruit or pomelo peel… they are incredibly tasty, too.)

Today, though, is booze day. Be sure and make this before these fragrant citrons are out of season. And by the way, it’s incredibly easy to do if you use this recipe.

Cleaned up tentacles
I used to carefully peel off the zest, which is a major pain in the butt when you are dealing with all those skinny tendrils. My friend Scott, though, made me see the error of my ways (thanks, Scott!). I now happily chop the whole hand up and call it a day. The pith isn’t bitter like, say, grapefruit, so no damage is done here by being lazy.

Plain old vodka is great here. I also use rock sugar, as it gives the liqueur a smoother aftertaste—none of that sourness that white (caster) sugar creates. What you get as a result of this tiny tweak is something really smooth and delicious. 

Do note that this Buddhacello is less sweet and syrupy than most limoncellos because that's the way I like it. If you prefer a sweeter brew, just double down on the sugar.

You can vary the flavors in here with happy abandon, of course. Add a split vanilla bean, maybe, or some kaffir lime leaves or lemongrass or whatever makes your heart sing or whatever you happen to have hanging around. And then when the dog days of summer finally arrive, treat your friends to this syrupy elixir. I keep a bottle in the freezer (it’s almost pure alcohol, so it remains liquid) for life’s little celebrations. It’s also great in cocktails or in a champagne glass topped up with chilled Prosecco.

Fóshŏu fànqiánjĭu  佛手飯前酒
Italy, with a detour into China
Makes about 1 gallon | 4 liters

Chopped and ready to macerate

Around 1½ pounds | 600 g Buddha’s hand citron
2 (1.75 liter) bottles vodka (Tito's is recommended)
10 ounces | 300 g yellow rock sugar
1 cup water

1. Scrub the citron well. Slice it between the tentacles and be sure to scrub really well down there in the wrinkles and folds. Roughly chop the whole citron and place it in a very clean gallon jar.

2. Pour the vodka over the citron. Cover the jar and stir it every day for a couple of days so that the citron soaks up the vodka while releasing its fragrant oils. Let the citron sit in the vodka for a week or up to a month. (I didn’t notice any difference in the flavor after a week, but it doesn’t hurt.) Strain out the citron and return the vodka to the jar.

3. Place the sugar in a saucepan and add the water. Bring the pan to a boil, cover it tightly, and lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Remove the pan from the heat when most of the sugar has dissolved. Cool the sugar water to room temperature, and then stir it into the vodka. Divide the Buddhacello among some clean bottles. Cap, label, and date the bottles.

4. Now comes the aging part. You can, of course, drink this now, but it will be so much better once it's had some time to mellow out. Keep it in a cool place for a couple of months at least before you give it a try. If you are happy with it at that point, stash one bottle in the freezer and the rest in a dark pantry. This will keep for years and become even mellower in the process, if you are strong-willed.