Monday, November 28, 2016

Chinese-ish turkey and cranberries casa Huang

Forgive me while I tell you about more good news regarding the books - yes, both books! - since this past week was filled with even more terrific news than usual. 

I guess that the Festivus fairies are working overtime this year around...

Matt Zuras at Vice Munchies accompanied JH and me on a fabulous tour of Flushing's Chinatown in Queens last September, ate more than he was legally required to do, and lived to tell the tale. 

I love this article because Matt really asked great questions, chowed down anything I nudged toward him, and turned out to be one heck of a person to roam the streets with out in the wilds of NYC. He also is a fabulous writer and good people. I now want to move to Flushing, by the way. Just saying.

The lovely and talented folks over at the San Francisco Chronicle food section - and I'm specifically talking about you, Sarah Fritsche - included All Under Heaven in its list of favorite cookbooks for 2016. 

I've violated all sorts of promises this year by buying more cookbooks, and who really can blame me when you look at the roster here? I mean, this is one amazingly cool crowd to hang out with. Yes, I'm still a nerd. Thanks for asking. 

And then the Wall Street Journal went and loved the bejeezus out of The Dim Sum Field Guide. In "Dim Sum: The Delicious Diaspora," Adrian Ho generously praised this little book as "extensive and satisfying." 

So happy these two books are being enjoyed. Thank you to Matt, Sarah, and Adrian, and thanks to all of you who have made this year so utterly wonderful!

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‘Tis the season to be making turkey and all the trimmings, so I thought I’d crack out my own way with this most American of all meals. By which I mean, of course, that we eat this with a decidedly Chinese range of flavors and ingredients.

For decades now, I have been making variations on the following Chinese turkey. What it basically boils down to is a richly seasoned marinade that goes heavy on the aromatics, so that our house smells like heaven by the time we sit down to eat.

At first I started out with a simple mixture of soy sauce, ginger, rice wine, and sesame oil. But then other things started to wend their way into the marinade, and what we have here is one of my favorites. It’s not too salty or sweet or overpowering – in fact, I think it’s just perfect. A thick layer of onions and carrots under the bird provides me with an extra no-fuss vegetable dish, and you can double or triple the carrots for more veggies, toss in some parsnips or mushrooms, if you wish, and really turn this part of the meal into as fancy a deal as you like.

Having all those vegetables in there does more than supply you with what seems like a free side dish, for all their flavors mix in with the turkey juices and marinade as the bird cooks. You end up with a great sauce that can be easily turned into gravy, or you can do as I do and sneak it off to the side to enhance soups and other dishes over the next couple of days.

I’ve also come to enjoy the ease that comes with spatchcocking the bird instead of leaving it whole or even stuffing it. Instead of hours in the oven that dry out the white meat and having to deal with carving the turkey at the table, I simply remove the backbone and flatten the bird, which then only requires a bit over an hour to roast. Have an instant meat thermometer handy to ensure that the dark meat is completely done, too, as this cuts out lots of the guesswork.

Another really good reason why you should cook a turkey this way is that you will not need to baste it. Really! Your oven stays nice and hot the whole time, which in turn crisps the skin up. Do note that the skin on the breast will brown, almost alarmingly dark in places, but that’s just the sugars in the marinade. Have no fear, it will be delicious.

Below the turkey recipe here you’ll find my favorite cranberry sauce. It’s not Chinese at all, but rather a mishmash of Californian influences, with the secret ingredient being jalapeño peppers in adobo. This ends up being not as frighteningly hot as it probably sounds, and these are so mild that I actually toss in at least 4 or 5 of the chiles and as much of the adobo sauce as I think I can get away with at the dinner. You may, of course, adjust it to fit your own palate.

I once gave a jar of this to someone as a gift, and she said that a friend of hers sat there and ate the whole thing, spooning it in until it was all gone. So, people do like it.

I’ll be attempting to add more holiday favorites to the blog over the following weeks so that you can ramp up your preparations for whatever festivities you have in mind. All of these dishes are designed for 6 to 8 people, with leftovers, because what is a holiday feast without all those good things hanging out in the fridge for easy gluttony?

Turkey Chez Huang
Huángjiā huŏjī  黃家火雞
Serves 6 to 8, with lots of leftovers

1 young, unbrined turkey, about 12 to 14 pounds
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine
5 tablespoons light soy sauce
¼ cup oyster sauce
2 tablespoons agave syrup or honey
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
6 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ cup thinly sliced fresh ginger
6 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
1 cup unsalted stock (see Tips)
Spray oil
3 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced into thin wedges
8 or so carrots, peeled and left long, but split into wedges if they are too thick
¼ cup softened salted butter

1. Defrost the turkey in the refrigerator according to the package directions – usually a couple of days are needed for a rock-hard bird. Remove any giblets and the neck from the turkey, and then use large tweezers or needle-nose pliers to remove any pinfeathers. Wipe the bird down with paper towels.

2. Place the bird on a plastic cutting board with the backbone facing you. Use a sharp knife (I use my handy wide Chinese blade) to cut down through the ribs on either side of the spine from the neck down to the thigh joints, and then up from the tail to the thighs. Use your blade to cut between the joints on either side – this makes the removal of the backbone really easy, since you don’t have any major bones to whack through.

3. Flip the bird over so that the breast is now facing you. Press the heels of both your hands down firmly and repeatedly on the breastbone, as if you were trying to revive the turkey, but since the bird is now dead will merely serve to break the breastbone and flatten the bird to a certain degree. The bird will now be floppy. Flatten out the legs so that they sprawl evenly on either side of the body – this is important, because if the thighs stay perched up against the breast, they will not cook through quickly. Fold the wings back over themselves to compact them and prevent them from drying out in the oven.

4. Set the turkey in a pan wide enough to hold it easily. Mix together the soy sauce, oyster sauce, agave syrup or honey, sesame oil, and garlic, and then rub this marinade into both sides of the turkey, paying special attention to the meaty bits. Add the ginger and green onions. Flatten the bird in the pan, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, then turn it over and refrigerate for at least another 12 hours. If you have the time and energy, turn the bird over a couple of more times. I also add the neck and backbone to the pan, if they fit. If not, the backbone can be cut in half and the extras stashed into a smaller pan – rub these with the marinade, since you will want to either nibble on them or add them to the stockpot later on. If you want the giblets, stash them in with the turkey.

5. The turkey will need around 1 hour to come to room temperature before you place it in the oven, a little over 1 hour to cook, and another 20 minutes to rest after cooking. So, about 2 hours and 30 minutes before dinnertime, remove the turkey from the oven and let it sit in a cool place to remove much of the chill. Heat your oven to 450°F / 230°C. Pour off and reserve the marinade, but discard the ginger and green onions. Clean out the pan, wipe it dry, and oil both the pan and a rack.

6. Sprinkle the onions and carrots (and any other vegetables you’re using) over the bottom of the pan and set the rack on top of them. Arrange the turkey attractively skin-side up on the rack, so that it lies as flat as possible. Rub the butter all over the skin. Place the pan in the oven and roast it until a instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165°F / 74°C, which means that the turkey is now cooked to perfection – this will usually take just a little bit over an hour, depending upon your oven.

Tips

Get a really good quality turkey, not one of those supermarket specials that are filled with water and hormones and all sorts of evil things.

For the stock, I usually end up using the water in which black mushrooms were soaked. These make an appearance in the Sticky Rice Stuffing My Way, and I’ll post that recipe here soon too. It’s a winner.

To carve a spatchcocked bird, simply cut off the thighs from the bird and then cut up the legs as you like. Remove the wings and then cut down on either side of the breastbone to remove the white meat, which then can be sliced crosswise into juicy pieces. Drizzle a little of the turkey juices over everything, if you are in the mood.


Cranberries Casa Huang
Huángjiā xiăhóngméi jiàng 黃家小紅莓醬
Makes about 3 cups / 750 ml

12 ounces / 340 g fresh cranberries
1 small orange, chopped into small dice
1 cup water
Agave syrup or rock sugar to taste (it will take a LOT more than you expect)
3 or more chipotle chiles adobo (smoked chiles in a sauce), finely chopped, or smoked paprika to taste, or ground chile peppers plus Liquid Smoke to taste
Sea salt to taste
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1. Rinse the cranberries and toss out any imperfect ones. Add the orange and water. Bring this to a boil over high heat and the reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Start adding agave syrup or sugar until it is as sweet as you like.

2. Simmer the cranberries for about 20 minutes, or until the oranges are cooked through. Stir in the chiles, salt, and walnuts. Bring to a boil and then remove from the heat. This can be made a week or so ahead of time and even preserved like a jam, or frozen, if you prefer.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

A Buddhist dish that's soft and sexy

Photo courtesy of Chowhound
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an amazingly erudite review of both All Under Heaven and The Dim Sum Field Guide last month, and my deepest gratitude goes out to the author, JBF winner Wendell Brock

He writes things that make me blush and also feel incredibly proud, like, "With All Under Heaven, Carolyn Phillips delivers a remarkable love letter to the infinite variety of Chinese cooking." And then he goes on to say about the Field Guide, "It is as erudite as it is darling." Such lovely words sure do my heart (and ego) good. Thanks, Wendell!


Photo courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly
Canada seems to be liking AUH too, as evidenced by this remarkable bit of news: It made the top five best-selling cookbooks in Quebec! Yay, and thanks to the Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore in Montreal for the shout out and high honors. (And what a great name for a cookbook store...)

Finally, Chowhound has given its considerable blessing to AUH by including it on its "Cookbook Gift Guide for the Holidays." Thank you, Chowhound! This is what the folks there had to say: "Wrap your head around all the varieties of Chinese food in this comprehensive, contemporary portrait of a country's culinary geography and the history that has shaped it." And not only did these fine folks somehow prop me up near the top of that list, but I also find myself surrounded by some of my favorite authors. A terrific honor, and I am both moved and grateful. 

Now, on to more food...


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Simplicity doesn’t have to mean boring, at least when it comes to vegan dishes like this. In fact, this dish is not only simple to make, but also fast and delicious.

The main ingredient in this traditional Buddhist dish from the Yangtze area is soy skin (aka yuba in Japanese), which forms on soymilk when it is being simmered, sort of like the stuff that collects at the top of your cocoa when your great-aunt makes it. In other words, this is simply a thin layer of protein.

But unlike that chewy layer of milk – something that has never charmed me much, to tell you the truth – soy skin is terrific. It has a wonderful texture that changes depending up whether it was dried or bought fresh, and also alters even further if it is, say, deep-fried, braised, or steamed. Dim sum restaurants often wrap julienned vegetables in these soy sheets before either steaming or frying them.

The easy ingredients
If you are a meatless sort of person, soy skin is one ingredient you should get to know up close on a personal basis. It has a bit of a chameleon character due to its different guises. Vegetarian ham or chicken, for example, is made out of gently stewed soy skins that are wrapped up into tight balls and then steamed to set their shape. One of my favorite versions even smokes these grapefruit-sized spheres, and that gives them even more of a meaty texture and flavor.

Today, though, we are going to be looking at a recipe that really is effortless. You can make it with either fresh or dried soy skins. I happened to have a package of fresh ones in the fridge, so that’s what I went with, but honestly, the dried ones are good, too. They have more of a leathery character in this dish, and that is not bad at all, since vegan dishes often can use a bit more texture.

The other main component here are fresh soybeans, what the Chinese call máodòu 毛豆 and the Japanese refer to as edamame. They are available in most supermarket freezers nowadays – and are almost impossible to find fresh – so go the easy route here and have a bag of these shelled beans ready to go in your own freezer.

Rinse off the packaged water
I like to cook this delicious dish in a light braise that is packed with flavor. To do that, I first fry fresh ginger and green onions in some oil, and then add a good wallop of Shaoxing rice wine, soy sauce, and sugar. That’s pretty much it. Who says dinner has to be stressful? Serve over some rice with maybe a bit of greens on the side, and your work is done.

Red-braised soy skins
Hóngshāo fŭpí 紅燒腐皮
Jiangsu
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side

3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
5 slices ginger
Braise the soy skins
2 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch / 2-cm lengths
5 ounces / 140 g fresh soy skins, or one large dried soy skin sheet
Warm water, as needed
6 tablespoons / 90 cc Shaoxing rice wine
¾ cup / 180 cc water
2 tablespoons / 30 cc regular soy sauce
Rock sugar about the size of a cherry, or agave syrup or white sugar to taste
¼ cup / 1½ ounces / 40 g shelled green soybeans (frozen is your best bet)

1. Set a wok over medium heat and then add the oil. Sprinkle in the ginger and green onions, and fry them until they are browned. You can remove them for more formal dinners, but for family meals feel free to leave them in.

2. While the ginger and onions are browning, work on preparing the soy skins. Fresh ones should be rinsed in warm water to remove any off flavors – I usually do this in a colander set in the sink. A dried sheet should be soaked in warm water until it is soft, then drained and rinsed. Tear the skin into pieces about the size of your hand and then drain.
Perfectly delicious

3. Add the rice wine, water, soy sauce, and sugar to the wok. Bring this to a boil and add the soy skins. When this comes to a boil once again, lower the heat to maintain a bare simmer, cover the wok, and then stir the skins occasionally to ensure that they cook evenly. After about 40 minutes, most of the liquid should be gone. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then toss in the soybeans. Cover the pan and cook for another 5 minutes or so to simply heat them through, as the frozen beans have already been blanched. Remove the cover, raise the heat (if necessary) to boil down any extra sauce, and then serve immediately.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Marbled tea eggs

I have to say, I was truly flabbergasted this week to read these lines on Tastebook

"Carolyn Phillips’s exhaustive study of Chinese food culture is a thing of legend" and "Each of the 300 recipes [in All Under Heaven] features a detailed headnote, and the author’s... illustrations tell the story visually — in a sort of Wall Street Journal meets Lucky Peach way." 


Writer Matt Robard did a wonderful job of understanding and explaining both All Under Heaven and The Dim Sum Field Guide in his article, "How To Do Dim Sum Right in 5 Dishes," and I thank him and Tastebook for this from the bottom of my heart. 


And my gratitude to all of you who stopped by to see me at the LDEI Literary Feast yesterday. What a wonderful day and what a lovely way to catch up with old friends... and new ones, too!


*  *  *

Marbled tea eggs are some of the most beautiful things you can set on a plate, bar none. They look like exquisite porcelain orbs, with the crazing on the glaze ranging from the palest beige to deep mahogany. And, when done right, the flavors seep down into the eggs (see the last picture below), permeating the whites with savory whiffs of soy sauce and aromatics, so that each bite is pure pleasure.

I first had tea eggs long ago in Taiwan, where they are incredibly popular. Some even think that they are part of Taiwan’s delectable cuisine, but these were introduced to the island back in 1949, when the Nationalists arrived with all their great chefs and fine home cooks in tow.

Almost too beautiful to eat
Shanghainese hallmarks like good soy sauce, flavorful tea leaves, Shaoxing rice wine, punchy spices, lots of green onions and ginger, a touch of sugar, and some tangerine peel make this East China source unmistakable. You can vary the seasonings to suit your heart’s content (and the balance of your meal), of course, as shown below, to create your own personal masterpieces.

One thing I’ve discovered after eons of making tea eggs is that the wine and the tangerine peel are vital components. It must be the acid in them that allows all of those flavors to work their way down through the cracks in the shells, for without them, I’ve found that the seasonings stay stubbornly near the surface. You can use either home-dried tangerine peel or Cantonese aged peel for this – both are tasty and both work well, so use whatever is easiest. (See the tip below for directions on making your own dried tangerine peel.)

Ready to chill
Cantonese aged tangerine peel, I must admit, has an almost heady fragrance, very perfume-y and lush, so if you find it in a good herbalist’s store, do snap it up for this and other dishes that I’ve talked about here and in All Under Heaven. These peels are very dark and – when the food gods are smiling on you – will be tied up in little stacks with bright red string. They should not be hard, but rather leathery. Store them in a tightly closed container in the pantry, where they will stay tasty for a long time because – after all they are aged.

If you are a sucker for pork, soak one of the petals (they usually come as whole peels that are split into thirds, and one of those thirds is what I call a “petal”) in warm water, then use a spoon to scrape off the whitish pith, which can be bitter. Chop the peel finely and use it and a good bit of finely chopped fresh ginger to season a pork patty, as in the recipe for Steamed Minced Pork with Salted Fish on page 205 of AUH (eliminate the fish, of course, as otherwise you won’t taste the tangerine.)

Anyway, back to those eggs. Use older eggs, if you can, as they will peel better. Set refrigerated eggs in a pan of warm water to get rid of the chill, as you don’t want to surprise the eggs into bursting. I have a whole bunch of tips on making the perfect boiled egg here, so check that out if you’re interested.

These tea eggs really are an indelible part of the Taiwanese culinary landscape now, though, and lady street hawkers will often sit with a bucket full of these and tiny braised land snails at the side of the road, working their metal spoons down into the snails so that they crunch against each other to let you know what they are selling.

Prick the shells to release the air
My favorite story about these egg sellers came from one guy I knew who was deep in Taiwan’s tropical jungles on a practice mission with the army. His company had clambered up and down hills for what had seemed forever. Deep in a green grove, they paused before working their way forward on their bellies toward their target. 

All was quiet, not a bird was heard. Then, suddenly they heard a woman right behind them say loudly, “Elder Brother Soldiers, you want some tea eggs?” He swears they all leaped a foot into the air, and lucky for that lady the safeties on their rifles were on. But how she snuck up on them while lugging a big bucket of eggs forever remained a mystery to him.



Tea eggs
Cháyè dàn 茶葉蛋
Shanghai & Taiwan
Makes 18 eggs

18 medium eggs, the smaller the better, at least a week or two old, and preferably organic and free range
Water, as needed
½ cup / 120 cc regular soy sauce
½ cup / 120 cc Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons agave syrup, or 1 piece of rock sugar about the size of 2 cherries
Stir the eggs to center the yolks
¼ cup loose tea leaves (I like oolong, but just about any green or black tea works well here, too)
6 slices fresh ginger
3 whole green onions
3 star anise
1 (2-inch / 5-cm) piece of aged tangerine peel, or one strip of home-dried peel
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
(Other spices you can use instead of or in addition to these are fennel, dried licorice root, stick cinnamon, whole black peppers... whatever you like)

1. Start this at least 3 days before you plan to eat them, as they need time to slowly cook and then soak in the sauce. Prick the rounded end of each egg with a tack or pin, as this will allow the air in that cushion to escape, rather than crack the shell. If the eggs are chilled, cover them in a pan of warm water for an hour or two to remove the chill. Then, bring the pan slowly to a boil, stirring occasionally to center the yolks. When the water has come to a boil, the whites will be set, so you can stop stirring. Simmer them for around 5 to 6 minutes – they will cook longer in Step 4, so don’t worry about them being done at this point. Drain the eggs and cover with cool water.  

Make a luscious braising liquid
2. When the eggs are cool enough to handle easily, use the bottom of a tablespoon to evenly smack them all over, about 6 times per egg is right. You want to keep the shells intact, so don’t hit them hard, but just enough to dent them up a bit and create that marbling.

3. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pan – in fact, a crockpot is really good for this dish, since it will take care of business for the rest of the recipe, but a saucepan will also work just fine. Place the eggs in there, and then cover them with water. Bring the pan or crockpot to a boil and then lower to a bare simmer. Cook the eggs with the lid off for a couple of hours in a saucepan, or overnight in the crockpot. Adjust the seasoning after this time with whatever you think is needed. Don’t add more water to the pan unless absolutely necessary, because you want the flavors to concentrate, which means that you want no more than 1 cup / 240 cc of liquid remaining in the pan.

The flavors will permeate the whites
4. Let the eggs and sauce cool to room temperature, and then chill them in a covered container for at least 2 days and up to about 5. Just before serving, peel the eggs. I like to rinse them in the sauce to remove any tiny bits of shell, but don’t soak them in the sauce, as this will erase the lovely patterns. These eggs can then be sliced in half or in wedges, or even served whole for things like picnics. Some people like to heat the eggs up before they peel them, while others like them chilled, and still others prefer room temperature. They’re all good.

Tip

To dry your own tangerine peel, scrub the tangerine thoroughly, wipe it off, and then peel off the skin in a continuous strip. Hang it up in a dry area, and it’s ready when the peel is hard. Store in a closed container.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Taiwanese pickles

Some more wonderful news this week: The Los Angeles Times listed All Under Heaven as one of its 27 favorite cookbooks of the fall. I could not be happier... I mean look at the company I'm keeping! Mom would have been so proud. (However, in all honesty, she never knew that the real reason I learned Chinese was so that I could eat the good stuff for the rest of my life.)

I'm also so thrilled that Jenny Hartin of Cookbook Junkies put All Under Heaven on her short list of her top ten (10!) must-have cookbooks for 1000 Cookbooks. If you are a serious lover of food writing, get to know the Cookbook Junkies and the friendly yet knowledgeable people there - the recommendations are fantastic, and it's where I've learned about and fell in love with many books I otherwise would have never noticed. Yup, I too am a certified cookbook junkie.

Finally, don't forget to come out to the Literary Feast hosted by Les Dames d'Escoffier this coming Sunday in San Francisco. It will be amazing, I promise you. Hope you can join us!


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When you visit Taiwan, there are a few places where you absolutely must eat. And I’m not talking about the big food palaces or those swanky little bistros that now line the more fashionable areas of Taipei cheek to jowl. No, you want to wander down the back alleys, out into the little villages, and into the night markets.

China’s great culinary masterpieces are, to be sure, still to be found in its finest restaurants, and I always make it a point to eat to the point of bursting when I go there with old friends, for the foods of Hunan, Jiangsu, Beijing, Sichuan, and Guangdong are rarely better than in my old favorite haunts.

But what I really hunger for are the local treats, the street foods. Deep-fried stinky bean curd, for example, is like a ripe cheese with a crispy crust when done right – and who can argue with crispy cheese? And then the hawker will shove a handful of crunchy pickled cabbage alongside those golden chunks, often bathed in a homemade chile oil. It’s a genius touch: sweet, sour, cool, fresh, and spicy notes bang around in my mouth against the pungent, hot, smooth, and rough character of the bean curd. I always eyeball each pile as I eat, timing things carefully and portioning them just so, and in that way end up with equal portions of the pickles and bean curd by the last mouthful. (That’s dedication, I tell you.)


Salting the cabbage, carrots, & chile
The Taiwanese are no slouches when it comes to the art of creating the perfect pickle out of little more than a handful of ingredients. This is the sort of thing you will find in busy night market stands, at mom n' pop restaurants, and in your friends' homes. There are good reasons for that: this is easy, cheap, delicious, and perfect alongside anything rich or fatty, like pork or a fried chicken leg or a good barbecued Taiwanese sausage. 

If you are hesitant about getting involved in pickling and fermentation, this is an excellent baby step toward mastery, for today's recipe requires that you first just salt the veggies, then toss everything together before letting them sit in a cool place (even a refrigerator will do nicely) until the pickle is as flavorful as you like. The vinegars do the heavy lifting here, so it's not naturally fermented like in this recipe for absolutely stellar Sichuan pickles that are soured with only time and a touch of salt. 

I’ve added some fresh chile pepper to the pickle, but powdered dried chiles work great, as does the addition of absolutely no hot stuff at all. What I really like to do is to drizzle homemade chile oil over a fistful of these chilled pickles, but that is a quick path to addiction that I must by law caution you against.

Be that as it may, something this good should not be reserved for your stinky bean curd celebrations. Consider this a great candidate for sidling up next to sausages of any ilk (shove a handful into a hotdog if you want your eyes to roll back into your head), slipping into sandwiches, or even tossing in a simple stir-fry of meat or chicken or sausage or bean curd – just do it at the last minute so that the crisp, fresh nature of this pickle can be enjoyed to its fullest.
Prep the colorful veggies

Taiwanese pickles
Táishì pàocài  台式泡菜
Taiwan & Southern Fujian
Makes about 8 cups / 2 liters

1 medium round cabbage (about 3 pounds / 1350 g)
1 carrot
1 fresh red chile of any variety, optional
2 tablespoons / 35 g sea salt
2 tablespoons / 30 cc Taiwanese Mijiu (or other mild rice wine)
½ cup / 120 g agave syrup, or some sort of sugar to taste (Turbinado or other raw sugar is nice here)
6 tablespoons / 90 ml white rice vinegar
2 tablespoons / 30 cc apple cider vinegar
Homemade chile oil, optional but insanely good

1. Set a large colander and a large work bowl in the sink. (This will seem like a whole lot of vegetables at first, so have the work bowl there to help manage things. Once the vegetables shrink down, they can all go into the colander.) Rinse the vegetables and pat them dry. Remove any damaged leaves on the cabbage, cut out the core, and tear the cabbage apart into bite-sized pieces (around 1 inch / 2 cm square). Work the leaves apart with your fingers as you do this. Peel the carrot and then cut it into thin julienne. Remove the cap and seeds from the optional chile before shredding it into thin slivers. Toss the cabbage, carrot, chile, and salt together thoroughly in the colander and bowl, and then let them shrink down few hours until they become more manageable. Dump everything into the colander, where they can continue to drain for a couple of hours (or even overnight) while you do something else.
The main seasonings

2. An hour or two before you want to proceed to the next step, simmer the rice wine, sugar, and rice vinegar together in a small (nonreactive) saucepan until it boils. Add the apple cider vinegar, which will provide the necessary sharp edge to this brine. Taste the pickling juice and adjust the seasoning to suit your taste by adding more of any ingredient. Take your time with this, as you are creating the main flavor of the pickle here. Remove the pan from the heat and let the liquid come to room temperature. 

3. Have a large clean jar or two large work bowl ready (again, nonreactive, like glass or steel is good – don’t use things like aluminum, which will have a chemical reaction with the vinegar). The pickles will shrink down over a day or two, so start them out in relatively ample containers so that you can toss them without having them spill out onto your counter. 
Delectable

4. Squeeze handfuls of the vegetables relatively dry, discarding their juices, and transfer them to the jar or bowls. Pour the cooled pickling juice over the vegetables, toss things around a little bit, and then cover the containers and place them in a cool place, like a pantry, basement, or refrigerator. Taste the pickle after around 2 days – whenever it is cured enough for your taste, start eating. (It takes about 3 days for things to hit the sweet spot for me.) The pickle will continue to cure the longer it sits, so try to consume it relatively quickly. Serve chilled in small mounds with the optional chile oil.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Cucumbers with eggs

Once in a while you get a combination of ingredients in a Chinese dish that sounds completely odd. This is definitely one of them. 

The main reason Westerners find even the idea of mixing cucumbers with eggs strange is that we almost invariably eat our cucumbers either raw or pickled. But in China, cucumbers quite as often as not are cooked to a certain degree, for these are indeed members of the squash family. Refreshing squashes, yes, but squashes nevertheless.

My first run-in with cooked cucumbers was in Taipei where they were served in a soup. I hadn’t a clue what was floating around in there among the tiny pork meatballs until a friend informed me that they were in fact peeled, fat cukes. They were veggies that had gone a bit to seed on the vine, but were then rescued for the soup course. 

Anyone who has ever grown cucumbers will attest that you almost invariably end up with a couple hiding long enough to turn into monsters. Until I had traveled to Taiwan, I usually tossed these onto the compost heap. But the Chinese are a practical people who tend to find a way to make just about anything not only edible, but delicious. 

And they are right on the money with overly mature cucumbers: when peeled and seeded, their flesh turns out to be firm and just barely fibrous enough to withstand a hot bath. So next time you are faced with a yellowing cucumber, julienne some ginger, fry up some little meatballs, and make a soup with that cubed up squash. It’s actually extraordinarily good that way.

But back to cukes when they are at their absolute prime. Chinese-style cucumbers are called xiăohuángguā 小黃瓜, or "little cucumbers," because they are around 5 to 6 inches / 12 to 15 cm long. They are usually sold as Persian or Japanese cucumbers in Bay Area grocery stores. These are sometimes called "seedless" because the seeds are so undeveloped as to be negligible, at least when they are harvested correctly. The skins are also tender, dark green, and only slightly spiny.

My friend Chiaying was gathering the last of her homegrown "little" cucumbers the other day, and I happened to stop by just as she was wondering what to do with all of them. That counts as exceptional good luck in my book. Some were eaten raw right on the spot, as little can improve a cuke fresh off the vine. But I also took a big bag home and started fantasizing about what I could do with this lovely bounty.

The cukes, salted and squeezed
And then I remembered that I had noticed this particular dish on a menu in San Francisco a couple days earlier. I didn't order it at the time because few people make it well, for the eggs and cucumbers need to mesh juuuust right. I’ve had it with the cucumbers appearing as wide slices or fat batons, but in those cases the eggs just slithered off to one side because there was nothing there for them to grab onto. Also, restaurant egg dishes are usually tasteless, for they are generally neither of the greatest quality nor cooked with care. And so I like to make this dish myself. 

In China, eggs are considered a rich ingredient because of their butteriness, their depth of flavor, and their silky texture. That whole Chinese concept of yin and yang gets a bit of a workout here in this dish because cucumbers are considered bland, and so their nature gets emphasized when they are paired with eggs. Also, with a combination like this, there is soft against crunch, yellow against green, cooked against fresh. 

Wonderful aromatics also can be found wandering around in here to perk things up and turn this into something really lovely. I like garlic and green onions to bounce against my senses, and you can add some chopped fresh chilies in there, if you are so inclined.

The next thing that has to be addressed here is the proper way to prep the cucumbers. Like I noted earlier, the eggs will happily slide off of the cucumbers if given half a chance, so you have to get creative here. 
Cut them into slivers

My contribution to this homestyle classic is to cut them into relatively small julienne – not shreds, mind you, which would just dissolve into mush when heated, but large enough to handle a quick turn in the wok – and then lightly salting them. I've never heard of anyone else doing this, but that last step releases most of the juices and also roughs up the surfaces just enough to give the eggs a bit of a grip. Another benefit is that the cucumbers are then seasoned all the way through and so offer punchy little sparks with each bite.

And now we get back to the eggs and how to prepare them. Simply put: don’t overcook them. 

The best way to achieve this is to first quickly toss the cucumbers with the aromatics over high heat and then immediately empty them into a bowl. Only then should you cook the eggs over much lower heat. This will give you fat, yellow curds that are pleasant to look at and even more pleasant to eat, as they will be soft and tender – the perfect contrast to the slightly crisp and still very fresh cucumbers. Magic.

This is great over rice, wrapped in a flour tortilla, served with congee, or made as an accompaniment to toast.

Cucumbers and eggs
Xiăohuángguā chăo dàn 小黃瓜炒蛋
Northern China
Serves 4

4 seedless cucumbers (like Japanese or Persian)
1 teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons / 90 ml peanut or vegetable oil, divided in half
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Your main ingredients
1 green onion, green parts only, finely chopped
1 fresh red chile, seeded and finely chopped, optional
3 large or medium eggs, lightly beaten (free range, organic ones are highly recommended)
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Rinse the cucumbers, pat them dry, and remove the stems and blossom ends. Cut the unpeeled cucumbers into 2-inch / 5 cm lengths (more or less), and then into strips about ¼ inch / 5 mm wide on the skin side. Place them in a colander set in the sink, toss well with the salt, rub them a bit with the salt to rough them up (pretend like you are washing your hands with them), and then let the strands soften slightly for around 30 minutes. Squeeze small handfuls of the cucumbers to release as much of the moisture as possible and then place them in a work bowl.

2. Set a wok over medium-high heat, and add half of the oil to the wok when it is hot. Swirl the oil around and add the garlic, onions, and optional chiles. As soon as they smell delicious, toss in the cucumbers, sprinkling them in so that they don’t clump up. Raise the heat to high. Toss these together just until the cucumbers are barely heated through but the garlic isn't browned, and then return everything to the work bowl.
Fluffy, soft eggs

3. Lower the heat to medium-low and set the wok back on the stove. Swirl the remaining oil into the wok, and then add the eggs and pepper. Cook the eggs slowly, adjusting the heat as necessary, so that they congeal rather than fry. Stir them gently to encourage the eggs to form fluffy clouds, and as soon as just a slick of raw egg remains, gently toss in the cucumbers to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning - you probably won't need more salt, but use your own judgment. Serve immediately.