Monday, December 10, 2018

My memoir, plus Suzhou's drunken biscuits

This is an updated recipe from a few years ago, as I've been working on my memoir for W. W. Norton and will include some of my favorite recipes in it. 

Tentatively titled The Jade Labyrinth: My Chinese Life, with Recipes, I'm getting close to wrapping it up, and so at last free enough to announce what it is I've been up to ever since All Under Heaven was published.

I became addicted to these drunken biscuits back in Taipei, when I worked for the museum and library as an interpreter. Cold, blustery evenings would often find me standing at a downtown bus stop feeling very sorry for myself. But one evening my nose detected the aroma of something toasty and decidedly alcoholic emanating from a woman's pushcart. 

One bite and I was hooked.
Golden bottoms

It took me forever to figure out the recipe because every version I tried tasted like bread yeast, not wine. These, though, are right on the money. Drunken biscuits (my pet name for them, as the Chinese term for them literally is fermented rice biscuits) are a specialty of Suzhou and other culinarily enlightened places along the Yangtze River, and each area seems to have its own take on what should be hidden inside. 

I’ve enjoyed these with the usual red bean paste, plain sugar, and sweetened ground black sesame. However, I’ve found that a combination of sugar, nuts, and osmanthus syrup take this sweet to extreme levels of hedonistic pleasure, at least as far as I’m concerned.

The filling
That being said, don’t overdo it in the filling department. Drunken biscuits are easily overpowered by anything that is too sweet or too whatever. Anything you put in the biscuits should simply serve to amplify and complement the aromas of the wine and bread.

The flavor of this really depends upon the fermented rice. It must be full-flavored for the biscuits to shine. What this means is that you should let your rice ferment for a couple of weeks so that it has a strongly alcoholic aroma and zero taste of fresh rice. Then, use only the thick rice solids for the first ingredient and the clear wine as the liquid, which pack a double punch of flavor.

Be sure and cover the pan, as that way the center cooks through thoroughly—there are few things as sad as an otherwise delicious biscuit with a raw, doughy center.

Drunken biscuits
Jĭuniáng bĭng  酒釀餅
Bubbling from the addition of the powder & soda
Jiangsu cuisine
Makes 6 biscuits

First rising:
½ cup | 125 g fermented rice solids (see Tips)
⅓ cup | 75 ml fermented rice liquid
2 to 6 tablespoons sugar
1½ cups | 260 g Chinese flour (or two parts all-purpose and one part pastry or cake flour)

Second rising:
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
Spread on the filling
Around 1½ cups | 260 g Chinese flour (or two parts all-purpose and one part pastry or cake flour)

3 tablespoons | 45 g turbinado or light brown sugar (see Tips)
3 tablespoons | 60 g toasted pine nuts or 6 chopped raw Brazilian nuts, optional
1 tablespoon homemade osmanthus syrup, optional
Neutral oil like canola for oiling the frying pan

1. Start this recipe at least a day before you plan to serve it. Mix the rice, water, and sugar together in a medium work bowl, and then stir in the flour to form a sticky dough. Taste the dough, and if it is sour, add more sugar—up to 6 tablespoons—to give it a slightly sweet edge, which will also encourage the yeast to grow rapidly. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and keep it in a warm place 8 hours or even a day or two, which will give the wine yeast time to multiply and turn the dough light and fragrant. Take a nibble of the dough—it should taste strongly of the wine when it’s ready.

Your standard baozi shape
2. Mix in the baking powder and baking soda. Place about 1 cup | TK g of the flour onto a smooth surface and scrape the dough on top of that. Knead the dough until it feels smooth and no longer sticks to your hands or your counter. What you want is it to feel like an earlobe, not a sweaty palm. Roll it into a ball, cover, and let the dough rest, as this will give the gluten time to relax and the dough to double in size. It is ready when you can poke two holes in the top with your fingertips and the holes don't immediately close up.

3. Cut the dough into 6 even pieces. On a very lightly floured board, roll each one out into 5-inch | 13-cm circles as if you were going to make baozi, which means that there will be a little bump in the center of the disc and thinnish edges—this will keep the top from becoming too thick. Divide the sugar, optional nuts, and optional osmanthus syrup among the discs and then gather the tops up, again as if you were making baozi. Roll the filled balls between your palms to smooth out the seams. Lightly press down on each one and roll out to form a patty about 3 inches | 8 cm wide. (You may freeze these at this point and then cook them as needed later on.)

Discs ready for the pan
4. Set a wide, flat-bottomed pan on medium heat. When the edges feel hot, use a paper towel to lightly film the bottom with oil. Reduce the heat to low. Arrange as many of the discs as you wish to serve in the pan, leaving at least an inch between them so that they can rise as they cook without sticking together. Cover the pan tightly so that steam will form, since this will help cook the insides quickly without burning the outsides. When the bottoms are a deep golden brown (about 5 to 7 minutes) and the biscuits have risen, turn the discs over and cover the pan again. Cook until the other side is a rich brown, too, which should take around 5 minutes. Serve hot. (To reheat these, never ever use a microwave, but rather gently grill them again or even heat them in a low oven, as this will keep the bread from turning tough.)

Monday, December 3, 2018

Long bean fish nests

One of the most beautiful of all Hakka-style dishes, for some strange reason this also happens to be one of the least well known. But that is certain to change once you realize that these also taste wonderful. 

In fact, they are so unusual and delicious that long bean fish nests will cement your reputation as a great Hakka cook.

The filling is simply homemade fish balls. But these are unlike any commercial fish balls you’ve ever eaten because they are light and fluffy, and yet have a bouncy enough texture to stand up to the long beans. 

Plus, I’ve figured out a way to make these in a food processor, which turns a labor of love into an easy feat.

Long beans are best through late summer and early winter here in California, around the same time that string beans are in season.

Look for thinnish beans, which will be firm and supple. Older beans have pithy insides, and they will often offer you fresh cowpeas inside, which are delicious too, but not what you want here. Select beans that look and feel perfect, as they are the stars of this particular show.

Long bean fish nests
Dòujiăo yúròujuăn  豆角魚肉圈
Hakka cuisine
Serves 6

12 tender long beans (also called snake beans, foot-long beans, etc.)
Boiling water, as needed
1 teaspoon fine sea salt

12 ounces | 300 g any variety of firm white-fleshed fish filets you like, defrosted if frozen
3 fresh or plumped-up dried black mushrooms
1 piece (about 1inch | 2 cm wide) aged tangerine peel
Boiling water

2 teaspoons ice water
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper
2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
Potato starch or cornstarch, as needed
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying

1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

3 fresh or plumped-up dried black mushrooms
½ cup | 125 ml rice wine or strained mushroom-soaking liquid
½ cup | 125 ml water
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
Finely chopped cilantro or scallion greens for garnish

1. Trim off the stem ends of the long beans. Fill a wide pan with the boiling water and sprinkle in the salt. Add the long beans and blanch them only until they turn bright green. Empty the pan into a colander set in the sink. Rinse the beans to cool them off, as this will stop them from cooking any further. Drain the beans and pat dry.

2. Wind each bean around itself into a 2-inch | 5-cm wide nest as shown in the photos to the right, and tuck the ends inside to secure them. This is much easier than it sounds.

3. Set the fish on a couple of layers of paper towel to absorb excess moisture while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Remove the mushroom stems and chop the caps finely. If you are using dried mushrooms, reserve the mushrooms’ soaking liquid for the sauce. Place the tangerine peel in a bowl and cover with boiling water. After at least 10 minutes, chop the softened peel into a fine mince.

4. Remove any bones still hiding in the fish by pulling them out with heavy tweezers or needle-nose pliers. Cut the fish into small pieces and place in a food processor with the tangerine peel. Whiz the fish until it clumps up into a pasty ball. Add the ice water and salt to the fish paste and pulse it a bit more. Pulse in the mushrooms, sugar, pepper, and scallions. You should end up with a firm, bouncy, light green paste.

5. Wet your hands and divide the fish paste into 12 balls. Stuff a ball into the center of each nest. Put a couple tablespoons of the potato or corn starch in a bowl and dip the fishy parts in the starch to coat them.

6. Set a frying pan over medium heat and drizzle in a few tablespoons of oil. When the oil is hot, slide in the filled nests. Fry them on each side until golden and then remove
to a shallow serving bowl. Pour off the oil and wipe the pan with a paper towel.

7. Make the sauce by heating the sesame oil and ginger together until they smell wonderful, then add the sliced mushrooms and fry until the mushrooms are golden. Pour in the rice wine or mushroom-soaking liquid and the soy sauce. Add the nests, cover, and
cook until most of the sauce has been absorbed, which will just take a few minutes. Plate the nests. Sprinkle them with the cilantro or scallions, and serve hot.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Chicken livers and scallions chez Huang

This dish blew my brother-in-law away years and years ago. It even got me an offer to cook at his hotel. I didn’t take him up on it, but still. It’s that good.

Most dishes that feature stir-fried liver are going to be all about technique, and this is no different. You will, of course, start out by getting yourself some really quality chicken livers, preferably free-range and organic. The reason? Chemicals linger in an animal’s liver, and so you want to dine on something healthy.

Over the years I’ve developed a great technique to flush out anything that might linger in even the happiest chickens on earth because no matter what lengths that farmer may have gone to, you are still going to have to deal with their blood and bile.

So, what you do is cut them into pieces not much more than ¾ inch or 1.5 cm all around. This opens up the livers for the cleaning process, and it also ensures that you will be able to quickly fry them without drying them out. Second, you marinate the rinsed livers in mild rice wine, which leaches out any impurities while suffusing them with flavor.

My secret
These are stunningly good as a simple main dish, but any leftovers are also excellent on toast the next day, sort of like Chinese pâté. You might find yourself making a double batch just because of this…

Chicken livers and scallions chez Huang
Huángjiā cōngbào jīgān 黃家蔥爆雞肝
Serves 4 as an entrée, 2 as a main dish

Around 12 ounces | 300 g fresh or defrosted chicken livers (see headnotes)
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)

Add the cornstarch
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
¼ cup | 1 ounce cornstarch

The rest:
½ cup | 125 ml fresh peanut or vegetable oil, plus more as needed
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch | 5 cm lengths, whites and greens in separate piles
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
Toasted scallion whites

1. Use cool tap water to rinse off the livers in a colander and pat dry. Remove any tough membranes, clotted blood, or mushy bits. Cut the livers into pieces approximately ¾ inch | 1.5 cm pieces all around. Put these in a small work bowl and cover with the rice wine. Marinate for at least half an hour and up to a day. Rinse the livers again with cool water and drain in the colander.

2. Place the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and garlic in a small work bowl. Gently toss in the livers and cornstarch so that no lumps of cornstarch are visible.

Frying up the livers
3. Have a slotted spoon ready to do your stir-frying, as well as a serving dish. Set a wok over medium-high heat and add ½ cup | 60 ml oil. As soon as the oil begins to smoke, add the scallion whites and stir-fry them until they are slightly toasted. Remove them to the serving dish. Fry about a third of the livers and sauce at a time over medium-high heat. Shake the wok to loosen them, and then flip them over. As soon as no more blood appears on their surface and the outsides are a dark brown (but the insides are still pink), remove them to the serving dish. Repeat with the rest of the livers and sauce, adding small drizzles of oil as needed.

4. Pour out any extra oil from the wok and add the scallion greens. Stir over medium-high heat until they are barely wilted. Toss in the scallion whites and fried livers. Fry these very quickly, as you just want to get them to know each other without overcooking them. Sprinkle the tablespoon of soy sauce over the livers to give their surfaces a final dash of flavor, fry them for only a couple of seconds more, and then serve.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Uptown Taiwanese omelet rice chez Huang

Omelet rice is a Taiwanese staple that came to the island via Japan. It is so luscious and simple, and such a balanced meal, that it's little wonder danbaofan has become everyone's favorite.

Normally this is made with something like pork, char siu (roast pork), or sweet Cantonese sausages (lop chong). Nothing wrong with that.

However, I like to play around with it, and the results depend upon what’s hanging around in the refrigerator. After all, this is simply glorified fried rice, and so glorify it I do.

Browning the sausage
I was talking with my friend Marc about this the other day, and we exchanged notes. A chef he knows uses goat sausage and fish sauce in his version of danbaofan, so that got me thinking. Yes, I had just the thing for another, new version of this classic.

And it turns out that Merguez sausages are lovely in here, their Moroccan spices and gentle smokiness lending a savory perfume and making this even more sublime. I’ve added asparagus for good measure. Plus that fish sauce, which puts all the flavors in perspective. 

In Taiwan you’d maybe add shrimp and/or peas. Obviously, this recipe is designed to be monkeyed with, so go crazy.

Walnuts & brown rice add nuttiness
Uptown Taiwanese omelet rice chez Huang
Huángjiā dànbāofàn 黃家蛋包飯
Taiwan cuisine with a twist
Serves 2 to 4

2 Merguez sausages (around 5 ounces | 140 g)
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup | 50 g coarsely chopped walnuts
2 cups | 350 g cooked short-grain brown rice, cooled
½ bunch | 200 g asparagus, trimmed and chopped
¼ cup or so fish sauce
1 tablespoon catsup
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Lots of green onion for vegetal perfume

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
Catsup for garnish

1. Remove the skins from the sausages and chop very coarsely. Set a wok over medium heat and fry the sausages without adding any oil. When the sausage starts to brown, toss in the walnuts. As soon as the walnuts begin to brown, scoop the meat and walnuts up to one side and add the oil and then the cold rice.

The omelet wrapper
2. Stir-fry the rice to lighten it up, and once it too starts to turn golden, mix in the sausage and walnuts, as well as the asparagus. Toss these until things are beginning to smell toasty, and then add a couple tablespoons of fish sauce, the catsup, and black pepper to taste. Toss some more and taste, then add more fish sauce if needed. Scoop the rice out onto as many plates as you need (2 to 4 is normal, or you can make one big rice omelet as an entrée).

3. Set the wok back over medium heat. You will make one thin omelet to cover each serving, so drizzle a bit of oil into the wok and a portion of the eggs. Lightly cook the egg on one side only. When it is set in the middle but still slightly damp, overturn it onto a serving of the fried rice. Repeat until all the eggs have been fried and the rice covered. Decorate with a stripe of catsup and serve. Eat with a big spoon.