Monday, July 16, 2018

Homemade mushroom seasoning

I admit it: I’ve never been a fan of MSG, which makes me really less than chic at the moment. 

And let me stop you right there before you send me an angry comment. 

I don’t want to hear again about how it’s only salt… I’ve listened to all the arguments and remain unmoved, no matter what its boosters say.

But mushroom seasoning? Everybody loves this, including me. 

It adds just the right touch of salt, and it amps up the flavors of whatever you’re cooking like nobody’s business.

Bottom: commercial, top: homemade
The thing is, I just can’t find it in my Chinese groceries very often. 

And if it’s hard for me to find, I’m guessing that folks who don’t live near large Chinese populations will have even a tougher time hunting it down.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that it is really easy to make. Only two ingredients are required: dried mushrooms and sea salt.

You’ll also need a good blender. And that’s it.

For this recipe I tend to rely on dried sliced black mushrooms. Since they are already sliced, this cuts down on the blender’s wear and tear. 

Commercial looks like cheesy poofs
You can use any dried mushrooms you like, as long as they have a great fragrance. Porcinis would be fabulous, or whatever looks good to you.

Do notice that the commercial mushroom seasoning is granular, while homemade is a fine powder. This means that you’ll need to use a spoon or shaker for this powder, instead of just sprinkling it into your pot.

But that’s a small price to pay for something that is so cheap, easy, and delicious.

Mushroom seasoning
Xiānggū jīng 香菇精
Chinese black mushrooms
Makes ⅔ cup | 40 g

1 heaping cup | 20 g sliced dried mushrooms
2 tablespoons | 20 g fine sea salt

1. Place the mushrooms in a dry blender. Cover the blender tightly. Blend the dried mushrooms on low speed until they are fine chunks, and then whirl these on high until you have a very fine powder. Keep the cover on the blender for a few minutes so that the powder has a chance to settle down.

2. Add the salt and pulse the blender a few times to mix. Scrape the mushroom seasoning into a resealable jar and store in the pantry.
Fine sea salt


If you like this as much as I do, devote a whole bag of dried mushroom slices to this recipe. Just weigh the mushrooms and use an equal weight of fine sea salt.

Iodized salt is not recommended, as it has a bitter taste. If you prefer kosher salt, just substitute that for the sea salt, as the measurements should be pretty similar.

Monday, July 9, 2018

A high summer appetizer from Hangzhou

It's mid-summer, and so nowadays my refrigerator always has celtuce in it. 

This southern Chinese vegetable is crisp and refreshing, but for some strange reason no one knows about it but the Chinese.

I have written about celtuce many times before on this blog, but no matter. 

Today’s recipe is so simple and so downright delicious that I really cannot wait to tell you about this cool appetizer seasoned with little more than ginger juice and balsamic vinegar. Refreshment on a plate.

Four fine candidates
First of all, find yourself a Chinese market. That is about the only place you’ll be able to hunt these down. 

This time of year is the perfect time for celtuce (pronounced SELL-tuss, since it’s a smashed-up contraction of celery + lettuce… don’t blame me, I didn’t name it) or stem lettuce (only slightly more helpful) or wōsŭn just in case you need to ask a clerk to direct you to the right bin.

Now pick them up and feel those stems. They should be heavy and firm, as that means they’re juicy. They shouldn’t have a huge scab on the cut end, because that shows you they are relatively fresh.

The next thing you do is check out the leaves. Most will probably have been removed, but you should still see some at the very top. The leaves should be green and energetic rather than yellow and floppy. 
Peel down til you see pure jade

Now look at the very center of the leaves. No flower stem? Perfect. If it’s starting to bolt, all the energy will be directed into those blossoms and the stem will in turn be tough and stringy, as well as hollow and dry.

When you get home, rinse the stems lightly and pack them in a plastic bag before refrigerating them, as this will help perk them up a bit. Consider them as nascent flowers at this point.

Celtuce is really good in stir-fries, but I adore it raw. Now that it’s so hot out, keep this recipe in mind for an easy side for dinner. And if you have a good bunch of celtuce leaves on hand, too, nothing is more delicious than this Sichuan-style salad. Nose-to-tail dining for the vegetarian set!

Briefly salt the celtuce

Hangzhou-style fresh celtuce stems
Jiāngzhī wōsŭn 薑汁萵筍
Serves 4 as an appetizer or side dish

4 hefty celtuce stems
1 teaspoon sea salt

4 inches | 10 cm fresh ginger
2 tablespoons agave syrup or sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
Freshly grated ginger
½ teaspoon sea salt

1. Cut off both ends of the stems and use a peeler to remove both the tough outer skin and the white webbing inside. Slice the stems into even batons of any size. Place them in a colander set in the sink and toss them with the salt. They will quickly look moist, which is a good thing. Let them sit there while you prepare the sauce.

2. Grate the ginger and use your fist to squeeze out all the juice. Mix this juice with the sweetener, vinegar, sesame oil, and salt.

3. Pat the celtuce dry with a paper towel and then arrange it on a rimmed plate. Pour the sauce around the celtuce so that the vegetables keep their beautiful jade color. And that’s it.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Uyghur-style barbecued beef ribs

The Uyghur people in China’s far west are, to my mind, at least, the country’s master barbecuers. 

Like many of the cuisines from Central Asia (and remember, Xinjiang’s capital of Ürümqi is located in the exact center of the Asian landmass!), the Uyghurs cook on open fires, as well as in tandoor-type ovens.

Not only meats go in those tandoors, but also a lovely variety of breads, like this delicious example

You can see all those cultural webs in little details like that, which is another reason why I love to read and write about food culture. After all, what we eat and why are really nothing less than the most delicious sides of human history.
The rub ingredients in my mortar

Seasonings here are delicious reflections of this crossroads: Sichuan peppercorns, cumin, garlic, and chile peppers. 

Salt is used instead of soy sauce, and in barbecues like this one here, it makes the spices pop even more.

Uyghurs are almost always Muslim, so beef, goat, or lamb work really well here. 

You can make this hotter or milder, depending upon your tastes and whether you’re planning to feed little children. 

Pounded up & ready to go
If you are one of those unfortunate chile heads with kids, consider making a nice chile sauce like this one for the adults and rely on paprika for the dry rub.

Be sure and use plain ground chiles here, not Mexican chile powder. The flavors are—I admit—insanely similar. But you get to adjust the levels a bit more here by using fresh garlic instead of dried.

I love to make this in my heavy granite mortar, a beautiful bit of useful art I picked up at Rancho Gordo in Napa. 

These kind of things make cooking so much fun. They’re low tech and look seriously gorgeous on the counter. (Plus, the beans at Rancho are the best around.)
Peel off the inner membrane

Uyghur-style barbecued beef ribs
Xīnjiāng tànkăo níulègŭ 新疆炭烤牛肋骨
Makes 5 to 6 big ribs

About 2½ pounds | a little over 1 kg beef back ribs (do not cut apart)
2 large or 3 small cloves garlic
1 tablespoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon ground toasted cumin
1 tablespoon coarsely ground chiles (see headnotes)
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
About 2 tablespoons water

Squoosh in the rub
1. Pat the ribs dry and, again, don’t cut them apart, as that would make them dry out too quickly on the barbecue. Flip the ribs over so that you can see the bones. Use a paring knife and a paper towel to lift up one corner of the membrane covering the inside of the rib cage, and then remove it. Stab the meaty parts of the ribs on both sides all over so that the marinade can penetrate the meat.

2. Place the garlic, spices, and salt in a mortar and pound them together until you no longer can see the garlic. Add just enough water to make a thick paste.

3. Set the ribs in a rimmed dish and rub the marinade all over it, paying special attention to getting it into all of those little holes. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and marinate the ribs for at least a couple of hours and up to a day.

Marinate & then roast
4. Prepare your outdoor grill with the heat at about 250°C | 120°C. Spray the grate with oil and set the ribs meaty-side up. Cover and cook for about 2½ hours, flip, and cook for another half hour or so. Rest the meat for about 10 to 15 minutes, then cut between the bones and serve. Either the local pilaf or grilled breads would be great with this, alongside this delectable cilantro salad

Oven directions: Wrap the slab in foil and seal the edges so that the juices can't escape. Place the package in a rimmed pan and roast the ribs in the center of the oven at 250°C | 120°C for 3½ to 4 hours. Place the rack so the top of the ribs will be no closer than 1 inch | 2 cm from the broiling element and set the oven to broil. Open up the foil and then broil the ribs until the fat is golden and the crust crisps up, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the ribs rest for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting between the bones. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Hainan's taro rice

This is one of my favorite go-to recipes when people come over for dinner in summertime. At times like these, I just want to just toss some meat and veggies on the barbecue and offer easy sides.

Taro rice totally fits the bill. It’s delicious, it’s unusual, it’s easy, and it seems vaguely sinful since toasted coconut and peanuts are clambering around in there among the silky chunks of lavender taro.

I have a recipe for this in All Under Heaven, but I’ve course I’ve been playing around with it in the interim. After all, this is a favorite, and I’m always looking for shortcuts.

What I’ve discovered is this: the taro can be microwaved and then tossed into the rice cooker with the rice, instead of going to the bother of steaming it. I also cube my taro and freeze it for things like this and last week’s scallion bread, since it makes these dishes a real breeze.
Steam the taro with the rice - easy!

With only sticky rice, green onions, garlic, and salt rounding out the shopping list, I therefore always have all of the ingredients on hand, which makes this an ideal spur of the moment meal.

Taro rice
Hăinán yùfàn 海南芋飯
Serves 4 to 6

1½ cups | 325 g raw sticky rice (long grain best, but short grain still delicious)
Water, as needed
1 cup | 130 g cubed raw taro
1 tablespoon sea salt
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
... and done
1 cup toasted coconut, preferably strips rather than flakes (see Tips)
½ cup toasted peanuts

1. Rinse the rice and place it in your rice cooker. Add water as directed. (See Tips.) Place the taro in a microwaveable bowl, add about 2 tablespoons water, and microwave on high for about 5 minutes, then drain and toss the partially cooked taro onto the rice. Close the cooker and steam the rice and taro together.

2. While the rice is cooking, place the salt, garlic, and green onions in a large work bowl and rub them together, preferably with your fingers.

3. When the rice is done, remove the taro to the work bowl and lightly break it apart with a fork. Then toss in the cooked rice, coconut, and peanuts. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Serve hot.


Toast the coconut
Each rice cooker is different, so follow its directions and use its measuring cup to make around 2 cups steamed rice.

For toasted coconut, spread the coconut on a small tray and toast it in the oven at 300°F | 150°C just until it turns a golden brown and smells delicious. Keep an eye on it, as it turns from brown to black in a flash.

If you have leftovers, microwave them and top with a fried egg seasoned with a dash of regular soy sauce. Breakfast perfected.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Crunchy taro scallion breads

It’s hard to improve on perfection, but sometimes you just have to try. 

Case in point: Taiwan’s fried scallion breads. I’ve covered those classic snacks before, in All Under Heaven, plus a pumpkin variation here on the blog, but today I’m here with a very fine variation, one that I’m sure you’ll love, too.

Three things make this recipe unique. 

First, I took a clue from the big raised scallion breads of the North (dàbĭng 大餅) and used yeasty bread dough instead of plain flour and water. This puffs up the pastries and makes them super light. Now, this is important because of factor two:

A really good taro root
The taro in here. It’s no secret. I love taro. There’s something about its sweet warmth that equals total food comfort to me. 

And so, whenever I find an especially good taro root, I peel it, cube it, and freeze it so that I can satisfy my cravings quickly and with little fuss. 

To make the mashed taro, just steam the taro until it’s soft all the way through, which should not take more than 15 minutes. Mash the cooked taro with a fork until it’s smooth, and that’s it. And because the taro is starchy, you also need factor three:

Steamed taro cubes
Olive oil. Yes, I know, this is not traditional, but my Chinese friends are coming to love it almost as much as me, not only for its flavor, but also for its health benefits. You don’t have to use extra virgin. Regular is perfect for this.

The olive oil lends a great creaminess to the taro and also crisps up the dough like nobody’s business. 

I’ve tried other oils here, and olive oil is the way to go. You can slip some toasted sesame oil into the filling, if you want, but sesame oil is so strongly flavored that it tends to out shout the taro’s subtle aroma.

Finally, be sure and sprinkle the fried breads with some really good salt. This makes each mouthful a joy.

For a complete breakfast, you can top the breads with a fried egg. 

Sprinkle on the fillings
To do this, wait until the bread is fried to a golden crisp, and then set it to one side. Add a touch more oil to the pan and crack an egg in there. Then, immediately squoosh the bread down onto the egg so that it cracks the yolk and welds to the egg. Fry the egg just until it’s cooked to your liking, and you’re ready to eat.

Crunchy taro scallion breads
Yùní cōngyóubĭng  芋泥蔥油餅
Makes 4

2 teaspoons bread yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup warm water
2 cups | 320 g Chinese flour  (or 1⅓ cups | 210 g all purpose plus ⅔ cup | 110 g pastry flour)
Fold the long edges over
About 1 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup | 100 g taro, cooked and mashed
½ cup | 50 g finely chopped green onions
½ cup | 120 ml water
Flaky salt, like Maldon

1. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar on the water and wait until the yeast foams, about 20 minutes. Place the flour in a large work bowl and mix in the yeasty liquid until you have coarse flakes, then turn it out on a board and knead until supple. (You probably won’t need more flour.) Lightly oil the bowl and toss the dough around in it to cover it with the oil. Place a towel or plastic wrap over the bowl and let the dough rise to twice its size, punch it down, and let it rise once more.

Coil the dough into a snail
2. Lightly oil your counter and a Chinese rolling pin. Have a pastry scraper ready, too. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Working on one at a time, roll the dough out into a rectangle, about 12 x 4 inches | 30 x 10 cm. Brush the surface with around a tablespoon of oil and sprinkle it with a quarter of the salt, taro, and green onions. Fold both of the long edges over the filling and then fold it once again down the middle to form a rope. Coil the rope around to form a ball, and then flatten this with your hand. Roll out the ball to form a disc that is about ½ inch | 1 cm thick. Repeat with the other pieces of dough and filling until you have 4 raw discs. The edges of the discs will look alarmingly tattered, but that’s actually good news, as these will fry up into incredibly crunchy bits. The raw discs can be frozen at this point, if you wish; you don’t need to defrost them before frying.

Raggedy is good here
3. Set a frying pan over medium heat and have a platter lined with parchment or tempura paper ready. Pour about ¼ inch | 5 mm of oil into the hot frying pan and then slide in one of the discs. Immediately pour about 2 tablespoons water around the edge of the dough and cover the pan, as this will steam-fry the bread and ensure that the center rises quickly. Remove the cover when there’s no more steam and fry it on one side until golden brown. Flip it over, fry until the other side is also golden brown, and then remove to drain on the paper. Fry the other discs in the same way, adding more oil as needed.

4. To serve, cut the discs into quarters and sprinkle with the flaky salt. Serve while hot. If you want, you can hold the fried breads in a 275°F | 135°C oven to keep them warm, although I have been known to scarf up the still-crispy cool ones when no one is looking.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Vegetarian escargots à la bourguignonne

The two of us fell in love with Burgundy-style snails in, of all places, Taipei. 

We had a super fancy French restaurant in town called, of course, Le Escargot, a place where even in the early Eighties a bottle of something like a Christian Brothers red would set us back at least $40. Our rent for a condo was less than three times that, so you can see that this was a rare treat.

Escargot were almost impossible to find, too, and butter, and French bread, for that matter. 

But necessity is the mother of something or other, and we really wanted to eat these little guys on a more regular basis, so I went to work.

Fresh black mushrooms
Taiwan’s fresh mushrooms are divine, and we would buy big fat brown ones up from old ladies who went foraging in the hills behind our house. And one day I started thinking… I wonder if I could use these? My conclusion: they’re even better. No grit, lots of flavor, and super cheap. What’s not to love?

I hunted down some tinned butter, which was a revelation. There wasn’t enough demand for real butter at the time for any markets to offer it fresh, so I invested in some French butters that came in cans and were really quite good. For the French bread, well, I always had my Julia Child recipe to fall back on. As for the broiler, I had gotten my hands on a little toaster oven that worked just fine. I even had seashells to hold the fake escargots.

In other words, this was a big ordeal, but when you really want to eat something, you’ll figure out a way to do it, right?

Now that everything is so easy, I had almost forgotten how good this was. We had it recently and know that from now on it will be on regular rotation.

I always serve these with lots of French bread, a tossed salad, and some good red wine. Little forks are traditional, but I have to tell you that chopsticks work a whole lot better. Sop up the butter with the bread as you go. This is sensuous stuff.

Vegetarian escargots à la bourguignonne chez Huang
Huángjiā Făshì sù guāníu 黃家法式素蝸牛
Faux snails in their coffins
Serves 2 as a main entrée, or 4 as an appetizer

4 fresh black mushrooms or shiitake
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ cup lightly packed | 30 g finely chopped parsley
1 stick | ½ cup | 115 g unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Have four heatproof escargot pans or plates ready, or use empty snail shells—you can find these in higher-end kitchenware shops and online. If you’re using the shells, place them on a baking sheet.

2. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and wipe the caps clean. Using your kitchen shears, cut the caps into thin strips, no more than ¼ inch | 5 mm wide, and then slice these into snail-like pieces. Distribute the mushrooms evenly among your pans, plates, or shells. These will shrink considerably as they cook, so don’t feel bad about smashing them down to fit.

Top with the compound butter
3. Place the garlic, parsley, butter, salt, and pepper in a small work bowl and mix them together thoroughly. Distribute this paste evenly among the snails. There’s no need to get too crazy with making them look nice, as the butter will melt soon enough.

4. Set your broiler rack about 2 inches | 5 cm from the broiler (or more, if your shells are big—whatever you're using, you want at least 1 inch | 2.5 cm clearance from the heat), and then turn on the broiler to high.  Place the mushrooms in the broiler and keep an eye on them. As soon as they’ve started to turn golden and are sputtering nicely, remove from the oven and serve on heatproof plates.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Plum liquor redux

Earth Day has already come and gone, but I still like to recycle. What can I say? I'm a giver.

So, when I saw green plums in the market this week, I knew I had to repost this recipe. 

For, I'm happy to report, it's now time to make your very own homemade plum liquor. Green meizi are around for only a few precious weeks, so hop to it. 

Trust me, this recipe is worth making. You'll be giggling happily and thanking me in a couple of months, when the weather has finally turned cool and this nectar is as smooth as honey...

*   *   *

Now in a store near you!
If you are anything like me, you probably like the sweetish and fruity Japanese liquor known as umeshu that’s sold with a couple of little fruits stuck inside the simple green glass bottle. I’m not going to name any brands here, but you probably know which one I’m talking about.

What you probably don’t know is that this is quite easy to make. Plus, you can use a good grade of alcohol (I like Korean soju, a higher octane white liquor that is much stronger than what usually goes into the stuff sold as plum wine) that makes this perfect for cocktails. 

I also prefer my drinks less sweet than what is usually commercially available, and a little DIY makes that possible.

After a couple of days
Another good thing about making your own homemade booze is that you can put lots and lots of fruit in the mix, which gives the flavor a lovelier punch. My plum liquor really tastes like plums – a cause for celebration in my book.

I’ve been making this liquor for years and never get tired of it, not only because it really is quite tasty, but also this gives me a chance to play around with it a whole lot. 

For example, in today’s recipe, you will find perilla leaves (also known as zĭsū 紫蘇 or shiso) adding wonderful depth to the brew. It’s sort of a vegetal note that contrasts well with all that fruitiness. You might have only run across perilla in Japanese dishes like sushi or pickles, but they are delicious and go especially well with stone fruit like these plums.

One thing on the nomenclature before we go much further: the fruit known as méizi 梅子 in Chinese are actually a type of apricot. Sometimes these are referred to as “Japanese apricots,” but they originated in China  just saying. They are almost always used when they are still firm and green for preserves, pickles, or in wines/liquors. 

So beautiful at this point
You will find them in East Asian markets around the beginning of summer, and when that happens, snap them up immediately because their season is a short one.

All you need to do is slash their skins and then soak them overnight in salted water to leach out some of the bitterness. Then, just toss them in a jar with your soju, rock sugar, and optional perilla leaves. After that, simply give them the time to get to know each other – six months or more is ideal, and longer is even better – before breaking out your now dusty but delicious bottle.

Homemade plum liquor
Zìzhì méizijĭu 自製梅子酒
Japan via Taiwan
Makes around 3 quarts (3 liters)

Around 3 pounds (1.5 kgs) green “Japanese” apricots
Cool water, as needed
2 tablespoons sea salt
About 2 pounds (1 kg) yellow rock sugar, or more if you like this relatively sweet
1 bunch perilla, optional
3 (1.75 l) bottles soju, Jinro brand recommended
Korean soju

1. Rinse the apricots well and check them over as you do so. You can trim any that have tiny nicks or bruises, but discard ones that are rotted or have insects roaming around inside. Pluck off the stems as you find them, and then slash the skin of each fruit 4 to 5 times. 

2. Place the prepped fruit in a large work bowl, cover with cool water, add the salt, and stir them around a bit to more or less dissolve the salt. Leave the bowl in a cool area overnight.

3. The next day, rinse the fruit well. Drain them in a colander and then rub the fruit lightly with a clean towel. Place the fruit in a 3 quart (3 l) or larger jar. Add the rock sugar and optional perilla, and then pour the soju over everything. 

4. Cover the jar and set it somewhere convenient on the counter so that you can swish it around every day for about a week – this will help dissolve the sugar and also ensure that the fruits don’t get a chance to mold before they sink to the bottom of the jar. Enjoy this time, since the sugar will start to dissolve in the alcohol and will make the bottom of the jar look kind of magical, while the fruits bob around on top.
Slash the skins

5. When the fruit has sunk to the bottom of the jar, place the covered jar somewhere quiet where it can mature for six or more months. You can drink it any time you like, but it does get better the longer it sits. The liquor is, of course, really good, and the fruits are lovely as little treats, too, but the perilla should be discarded. I either just ladle out the liquor as it is needed or put it up in smaller bottles, but with mouths large enough for the fruits to go in and out easily. And you definitely want to put those plums in the liquor, as they continue to mellow over time and turn into little amber morsels. I have some from about a decade ago, and they are now soft and delectable, and of course the liqueur is as smooth as satin.