Monday, May 23, 2016

A taste of the simple life - savory peanuts and gluten

I fell in love with this dish the first year I lived in Taiwan. I’d find it on the dinner table of the Chinese family I boarded with as an easy appetizer or as the perfect side for congee. But even way back then, people did not whip this up at home, as it was so much easier to simply buy it at just about every corner store.

And that’s the way I enjoyed it for years. But then I decided to try making it myself, and I have to tell you, the difference is night and day. Instead of the heavy sweetness and general softness of the canned version, this homemade recipe has a lovely spectrum of flavors and textures that hit all my buttons just right.

I’ve tossed in black mushrooms for a terrific xianwei undercurrent, some fresh ginger to back up the flavors with a touch of heat, and then lots of warm spices to amplify the comforting nuttiness. The result really is delicious.

Simmer the nuts and shrooms
This dish might have originally hailed from Shanghai or Zhejiang due to the fried gluten balls, soy sauce, and rock sugar. It seems that this was then turned into a classic side dish by Taiwan’s military families, who have given the island a wonderful range of homey dishes called juancuncai 眷村菜 (literally "military dependents' village foods"). 

Back in the day (we are talking about the early 1950's here), these villages were rather impoverished, as even the officers lived in very simple barracks that looked like old motels. A hallway ran down the center of the place where my husband's family lived, and each household had front doors that opened up on this. The balcony in the back was covered with corrugated steel and used as a makeshift kitchen. No running water back then, so my husband and his father had to haul water up the stairs in buckets that would be poured into the family cistern.

Small grocery stores run by retired soldiers would sell supplies like fresh produce, as well as steamed breads (mantou) and the deli dishes known in Shanghai as péntóucài 盆頭菜 ("basin foods"). Prepared by either the soldiers' wives or local aunties, these savory preparations literally were sold in aluminum basins and covered with window screen mesh. Then, someone had the bright idea of making this simple concoction even easier by canning it, and most folks never turned back.

Rock sugar always makes things better
I recommend, though, that you do. Consider this yet another one of those template recipes, a guideline that you start out with and then hone to fit your own taste buds. The peanuts and fried gluten are the perfect backdrops for experimentation. Do try this traditional take first, though, as it’s a classic.

Peanuts and fried gluten
Huāshēng miànjīn 花生麵筋
Taiwan Military Families and the lower Yangtze River area
Serves 8 as an appetizer or side dish

1 cup (6 ounces/170g) raw shelled peanuts
1 big handful of dried black mushroom stems (see Tips), or 3 dried black mushrooms
Water, as needed
3 slices fresh ginger
2 whole star anise (see Tips)
½ stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons/30ml peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon (or so) rock sugar
3 tablespoon/45ml oyster sauce (or oyster-flavored sauce for a meatless version)
1 tablespoon/15ml dark soy sauce
¼ cup/60ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 big bag (7 ounce/200g) of small fried gluten balls (see Tips)

1. This will be ready in two days from beginning to end (most of that spent just waiting around, truth be told). Start this recipe by rinsing the peanuts and mushrooms, placing them in separate bowls, and covering them by at least an inch with cool water. Let them soak overnight.

The collapsing gluten balls
2. Before you begin cooking, first rinse off the peanuts in a colander and place them in a 2 quart/2 liter pan. Reserve the mushroom soaking liquid and either rinse the mushroom stems or, if you are using the whole mushrooms, rinse them off before slicing them into thin pieces. Add the mushrooms and strain the soaking liquid into the pan, and add enough water to cover the peanuts and mushrooms by an inch.

3. Add the ginger, star anise, and cinnamon to the pan. Place the peppercorns in a mesh ball or teabag and add them to the pan, too. Bring the pan to a boil over high heat and then lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.

4. After about 15 minutes, add the oil, sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, and gluten balls – you probably will have to add the gluten balls in increments, as they start out huge, but then collapse as they soften, so add enough to fill the pan, cover, simmer for a few minutes, and then add some more until you’ve added the whole bag.

5. Bring the pan to a boil again over high heat, and then reduce it to a slow simmer. Cook until the peanuts are soft but not mushy and the gluten is silky. Allow everything to come to room temperature before chilling it overnight, as this will give the nuts time to absorb all of the flavors. Serve this dish as either a bar snack or as a side with bland but delicious things like steamed rice or congee.


I’m a serious collector of mushroom stems. Fresh or dried, whenever I use Chinese black mushrooms (which are very similar to Japanese shiitake), I remove the tough stems and dry them out in a strawberry box set out on the counter for this very purpose. When the stems are completely dry and are as hard as wood, they get tossed into a jar and stored in the pantry. This is an amazing resource for deep sauces like the one we have here, for stocks, and for whenever you want to add a serious flavor boost to your soups. For more refined dishes, strain out the stems before you use the stock; otherwise, as with here, keep the stems in if you have a good set of teeth, as they can be a bit chewy, but I think divinely so.

Fried gluten balls
If you are in a hurry, or just don’t have all these spices, toss in five-spice powder to taste. Start with a teaspoon and work up until the flavors hit your sweet spot.

Fried gluten balls come in two sizes: big and small. The big ones are used in such Shanghainese dishes as this. Try to get the small ones for this recipe, though. They will usually be found in Chinese grocery stores that cater to Taiwanese and newer Chinese immigrants. The gluten balls are called miànjīnqíu 麵筋球 and should be around 1 inch/2cm in diameter. 

This bag of gluten balls will be alarmingly large, but don’t worry, as the puffs will collapse into small wisps in the sauce. Check the expiration date on the bag – old frying oil always tastes like old frying oil no matter how hard you try to fix it – and store them in the refrigerator.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Longan soup with lily bulbs

China has a rich and varied love affair with sweet soups. These are often served as afternoon treats or late at night as snacks, rather than as desserts, but I like them even for breakfast with some buttered toast or steamed buns. Hot soups are great in winter, while chilled ones make even the muggiest days bearable.

This recipe calls for delicate edible lily bulbs, a lovely vegetable grown mainly in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province in China’s desert region up near Inner Mongolia. 

Packaged lily bulbs
These are gradually becoming more common on this side of the Pacific, so snap them up if they appear in your market, and they almost always appear as sets of four in little blue plastic bags. 

The only caveat when cooking with these bulbs is that you never want to overcook them, as their crispy texture quickly mushes up. So, just bring them to a boil and serve immediately. If you don’t have fresh lily bulbs in your area yet, a handful of peeled fresh water chestnuts or even some thin slices of jicama will do. 

Any one of these sweet vegetables will add beauty and contrast to the dark, almost caramelized flavor of the dried longans, or “dragon eyes.” 

Dried longans releasing their flavor
A relative of sorts to the lychee, longans appear fresh in Chinese markets at the end of summer, right after lychees finish their peak season. Smaller and more highly perfumed, they dry into beautiful little brown balls and are tasty to eat just as is. Or maybe I just love dried fruit no matter what.

But back to those lily bulbs.

First off, don't use just any old lily bulbs here, as not all of them are edible. This is important. Only use Gansu-style lily bulbs. 

When you prep the fresh lily bulbs, consider leaving enough connected to the root area so that they can have a chance to grow into plants. What I do is break off the "petals" on the bulbs until I get to a firm center that looks very much like a peeled clove of garlic. 

Peel off the petals
Then, I set the "cloves" in a pot with good potting soil, water thoroughly, and with any luck have a plant poking up in a couple of weeks.

These are gorgeous in the yard - they look for all the world like tiger lilies - and will keep coming back as long as you leave the little bulblets (miniature bulbs that look like white seeds) in the ground for next year's crop. 

Harvest the bulbs any time after the tops have dried. I tend to keep them in the soil until I need them, as they stay fresher. And, if I forget, they will be there for me next year.

Longan soup with lily bulbs 

Băihé guìyuán tāng  百合桂圓湯
Serves 6

½ cup/80g dried pitted longans
Baby lily plant
6 cups/1.5l water
1 tablespoon rock sugar, or to taste
2 tablespoons osmanthus syrup
4 fresh lily bulbs

1. Rinse the longans in a sieve before placing them in a saucepan. Cover with the water and bring this to a boil. Simmer the longans until they have completely plumped up, about 30 minutes. Add the rock sugar and osmanthus syrup; taste and adjust seasoning.

2. Wash the lily bulbs to remove any sawdust. Trim off dark or bruised areas before separating the bulbs into petals; the tight centers can simply be sliced in half if you don't plan on planting them. Cover them with cold water if you are not serving the soup right away, as they should not be cooked longer than a flash.
A visual, textural, & aromatic treat

3. Just before serving, bring the soup to a boil. Drain the lily bulbs and add them to the soup. Bring it back to a full boil and then immediately remove it from the heat. Divide the soup into individual bowls before serving.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sugar snap peas, Calvin Lamborn, & North China

Noodles are one of my go-to delights, no matter where I find myself on the planet, or even in my own neighborhood, for that matter. 

Something about hot pasta just makes me happy. That must be one of the main reasons I so love the foods of North China, because they come up with some of the most inventive, satisfying, and easiest ways to delight both my mouth and my stomach without breaking the bank.

Today’s recipe shows just how carefree and delicious this habit has become for me. Just to give you a bit of background, I happen to adore what the Chinese call “tossed noodles” (bànmiàn 拌麵), while my husband is a sucker for soup noodles. I try to be fair in the kitchen and give him his favorites on a regular basis, but whenever it’s up to me or I’m left to my own devices, it will be tossed noodles for sure. The reasons for this are simple: The textures become more focused that way, since nothing is swimming around in a broth, so neither the pasta nor the toppings need to fight for my attention. And second, some sort of rich, savory sauce coats each strand to different degrees, so every mouthful is a bit different.
Chinese pasta

This classic home-style recipe is probably from Hebei (the province surrounding Beijing and Tianjin) or Shanxi. It’s definitely not restaurant food, but rather something you would enjoy at a little mom n’ pop stand or at your grandma’s. The ingredients are all cheap, and you can play with the ratios and even sub out one thing for another without wrecking the beauty of this bowl of noodles.

It probably started out as a Hui Muslim dish, but over the years this has morphed into something more distinctly Han Chinese, for you have pork here instead of beef or lamb, soy sauce and rice wine driving the flavor profiles, and lots of green vegetables to add crunch and color. This is food cross-pollination at its finest.

About those vegetables: String beans are traditionally the veggie of choice here, but today you will instead see sugar snap peas given some very special attention. I selected them for three reasons: they are in season now, they are so sweet and crispy that for my money they work even better as the crunchy element in this dish, and most important of all, I had the chance to meet the lovely man who bred the sugar snap pea, Calvin Lamborn.
Sugar snap peas

We came across each other over an array of Turkish food at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, and I was bowled over by how nice he and his son, Rod Lamborn, turned out to be. The elder Mr. Lamborn is a renowned plant breeder who has specialized in snow and snap peas, and as they are two of my very favorite vegetables, this was a real delight for me. Plus, he gave me a pen that I will always treasure.

Thank you, Calvin, for creating something truly amazing, and thanks to Jim Poris of Food& (formerly Food Arts) for making sure great people like him were properly honored at Terroir. What a treat.

Me & Calvin Lamborn

Tossed noodles with snap peas and pork
Tiándòu bànmiàn 甜豆拌麵
Hebei and Shanxi
Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish

4 ounces/100g pork belly
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)

8 ounces/230g/2 cups sugar snap peas (see Tips)
1 quart/1l boiling water, as needed
3 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorn oil, or plain peanut or vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 green onions, trimmed and chopped
2 dried Thai chiles, seeded and crumbled, optional

5 ounces/140g (or more) fresh noodles (see Tips)
Marinated pork belly
1. If you start this dish a day ahead of time, the pork will take on an almost cured flavor from the marinade that I really like. Remove any skin on the belly and slice it thinly against the grain into pieces about an inch wide. Toss the pork with the soy sauce and rice wine, cover, and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or up to a day or so.

2. Trim and string the peas as needed and cut any long ones in half so that they are about the same size. Bring the water to a full boil in a pan and toss in the peas. Stir them around, and when they turn a bright green and have just barely lost their raw taste, scoop them out into a colander set in the sink, but leave the water in the pan, as you are going to use it to cook your noodles. Rinse the peas quickly with cool water to stop the cooking and let them drain.

Green onions - the North's favorite
3. Set a wok over high heat. Swirl in the oil and add the garlic, green onions, and optional chiles. Toss these around for a few seconds to release their fragrance and then add the pork and any leftover marinade. Stir-fry the pork until it loses all its pink color, which will just take a few minutes. Remove the wok from the heat.

4. Bring the pot of water to a full boil again and then sprinkle in the noodles so that they do not clump together. Stir them gently until the water comes to a boil again, and then reduce it to maintain a simmer. While the noodles are cooking, set out however many noodle bowls you need near the stove, along with a Chinese spider or slotted spoon. When the noodles have cooked to your liking, use chopsticks and the spider or spoon to transfer them to the wok, and then discard the water. Immediately return the wok to high heat and add the blanched peas. Toss these together until the sauce comes to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then divide the noodles among your bowls. Serve hot.


You may use snow peas or tender string beans here, if you like.

The traditional pasta for this type of dish is freshly pulled noodles, or lāmiàn 拉麵, but feel free to sub in whatever you like or whatever is available or whatever looks good. I would recommend fresh pasta over dried here, as its texture will be a bit softer and luscious.