Monday, April 20, 2015

Heaven on a plate

In this salad, the ingredients sparkle and refract colors like a stained glass window.  There's a rich combination of opaque, transparent, and solid hues that give depth and texture to its beauty.

But that's not all.

The scent of the sea imbues each bite, and yet this is not overwhelming... it's not low tide on a plate.  Rather, there's that characteristic balance that is the hallmark of any great Chinese dish.  Crunchy agar strips may taste bland, but they also lighten the flavors, and they are as clear as glass.  Thin cucumber ribbons too play a supporting role here, but they offer a freshness and almost a melon undertone to each mouthful.  A sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds provides a nutty punch, and this is probably the last flavor to remain on your palate, while the sparkling red Chili Oil punctuates the first barrage to hit your taste buds. You might be working with two of these ingredients for the first time here, so let me introduce them to you.

Agar strips
First up are the agar strips.  Agar comes in many forms - in blocks and as powder, as well as noodle-like strips - and is made out of a type of seaweed that has been processed into its present state.  So, agar (or agar-agar or yangcai or kanten) is in fact just another variety of sea vegetable that's showing up in today's mix.  Do be aware that once it's soaked, dried agar blooms into many times its original size, so don't be too enthusiastic about reconstituting the entire package.

In this recipe, you only need to cut off about a quarter of the skein, and the rest can be packaged back up and saved for another day; it will keep pretty much forever if stored in a dry and bug free place.

Agar needs minimum processing when it is used in cold dishes.  All you have to do is rinse it, soak it in cool water for a few minutes, and then in hot tap water for about another five, and then rinse it again in cold water.  What this does is wake up the agar, softening it without melting the strips, and then snapping it back into shape again.  As you do this, watch the agar turn from hard pieces that look like dried cellophane (fensi) noodles into flexible whitish strands, then into a clear soft tangle, and then into translucent lengths that are once more firm.  It's entertaining, or at least for me it is.
Agar as slithery strips

Next up are the sea vegetables.  You can use plain seaweed if you wish, but look around for mixed sea vegetables, since they offer lots more variety, whether in taste, color, or shape. You sometimes can find them fresh, but they are more commonly sold packed in salt in little bags; a health food store is a good place to find them.  Keep these packages sealed and in the refrigerator until it's time to use them.  Then, just rinse the sea vegetables under running cool tap water to wash off the salt, soak them in some cool water to reinvigorate them, and then drain the vegetables thoroughly before adding them to your salad; they shouldn't be cooked or even blanched.

This recipe could easily be from any area along China's coast, so it's hard to say where this salad originally hailed from, but it is enough of a culinary chameleon to fit in just about any cuisine.  The sprinkling of red hot Chili Oil only serves to disturb the search for its lineage, but I offer it to you anyway in the hopes that you love this jewel of a salad as much as I do.

Salted fresh seaweed mixture

Spicy sea vegetable salad 
Hóngyóu hǎicài shālā  紅油海菜沙拉 
Eastern China
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

About ¼ of a (1.5 ounce) package of agar strips
8 ounces (or so) mixed sea vegetables packed in salt
1 small Persian cucumber, julienned
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons light-colored, flavorful vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 clove garlic, minced very finely
Chili Oil to taste, or roasted sesame oil to taste

Cut up the dried agar
1. Use a pair of scissors to lop off that piece of agar strips and wrap up the rest for some other time.  Place the strips in a colander and rinse under cool running water to remove any dust or debris.  Place the strips in a work bowl and cover them with cool tap water for a couple of minutes, drain, and then cover with hot tap water for another 5 minutes to fully reconstitute them.  Then, drain the strips and rinse them with more cool tap water.  Cut the strips into 1-inch lengths and drain well.

2. Rinse the sea vegetables in a colander with cool tap water and then place in a work bowl.  Cover the sea vegetables with cool tap water for a few minutes to wake them up, and then drain thoroughly in a colander.

3. Place the agar, sea vegetables, and cucumber in a clean work bowl with the salt, vinegar, sugar, and garlic.  Mix together, adjust the seasoning, and refrigerate for at least an hour.  Just before serving, taste again and add more salt, sugar, or vinegar as needed.  

4. Pile the salad on a pretty plate, sprinkle with Chili Oil or sesame oil, and dust the top with the sesame seeds.  Serve cold as an appetizer or side dish in hot weather.

Monday, April 13, 2015

When is a fish not a fish?

The names of some dishes are evocative, like floating islands or red velvet cake.  Others are very straightforward and completely no frills, such as steamed rice or corn on the cob.  Still others require a leap of faith before you even think of sticking them in your mouth, which is what happened with me before I attempted spoonfuls of a scrumptious version of dirty rice.

And then there's the final category: downright weirdly named foods. Strange Flavor Bean Fish has got to have one of the top worst names ever. It's like if a potential Miss America were saddled with a moniker like Salmonella Boozer; it's just not right.  

Soy skin
But in fact, "strange flavor" is a direct translation of the name for the smooth Sichuanese sauce that's highlighted here: guaiwei.  Why it would be called "strange" is beyond me because it's nothing more than some of our wonderful Chili Oil, a few dabs of sesame paste, a sprinkling of toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns, and a good fistful of aromatics like garlic, ginger, cilantro, and green onions all bound in a savory sauce. So, it's not strange -- it's yummy.

Mung bean sprouts

And now we come to the fish part of the story. I'm guessing here, but I'd put my money on the possibility that this was originally a vegetarian version of a seafood dish that turned out to be more popular than the original. Fish filets have been known to find themselves wrapped up in soy skins and fried into crispy little packets, so the step from seafood to mung bean sprouts isn't really too bizarre, since both end up being relatively bland but juicy foils for the crunchy outside that serves as a conduit for all of that great sauce.

About the only thing I'm 100% sure of with regard to the name here is that the "bean" refers to the beansprouts!
Mung sprouts

A word about mung bean sprouts: buy them no earlier than a day before you plan to use them because they have the shelf life of a may fly. Store them in the refrigerator in a plastic container and covered with water, as this will slow down the almost instantaneous decay that seems to be in these sprouts' DNA. The soaking will also serve to crisp up the sprouts and make them even more delightful.

Soy skins, also called doufupi or yuba, can be found fresh or frozen in most Chinese grocery stores. Fresh soy skins should be used up relatively quickly, as they are prone to mold even under the best of circumstances. Frozen ones will stay in great shape for months as long as you are careful not to bend or crush them, for the skins will shatter at the least provocation. Fresh or frozen, keep them covered with damp tea towels from the moment you take them out of the package until you fry the filled soy skin rolls -- this will help them stay supple and crack free.

Have everything ready for this dish here before you start. It is best if it's eaten immediately after the rolls are filled, fried, and sauced, so the best way to keep the fuss to a minimum is to arrange all of the ingredients by the stove until about 10 minutes before serving. The sauce can be made in advance and the sprouts blanched and chilled, so that all you have to do is roll the sprouts up in the soy skins and fry them.

The only difficult thing that remains is your explanation to your guests as to how this dish got its name.

Strange flavor bean fish
Guàiwèi dòuyú  怪味豆魚 
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

10 to 12 ounces mung beansprouts
1 large sheet soy skin (fǔpí 腐皮), fresh or frozen
¾ cup peanut or vegetable oil

¼ cup toasted sesame paste or tasty peanut butter
2 tablespoons soy sauce paste (jiàngyóugāo 醬油膏, see Note below)
2 teaspoons sugar
3 to 4 teaspoons flavorful vinegar
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons chili oil, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons boiling water
3 to 4 teaspoons finely minced ginger
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 green onion, trimmed and finely minced
4 tablespoons finely minced cilantro
½ teaspoon finely ground chili powder, optional

½ teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns, or to taste
Roll up the sprouts

1. Blanch the beansprouts by placing them in a saucepan and covering them by at least 1 inch with tap water. Cover the pot and bring it to a rapid boil. As soon as the water is about to go from a simmer to a full boil, check one of the sprouts: it should be crispy yet the raw edge should be cooked away. Immediately dump the sprouts into a colander in the sink and rinse the sprouts with cold tap water to stop the cooking. Drain the sprouts thoroughly.

2. Lay the soy skin sheet on a cutting board and cut it in half. Cover both sides with a damp tea cloth to soften the sheet a bit while you mix up the sauce. Pour the oil into a wok and set it on the stove.
A soy-sprout cigar

3. Combine all of the sauce ingredients in a measuring cup or bowl, taste, and adjust the seasoning as desired. It should have the consistency of heavy cream.

4. Remove one of the soy sheet halves and spread half of the blanched bean sprouts near the round edge as shown (see above). Fold both edges over the sprouts and then roll up the soy skin in a tight cigar (see the picture to the above right). Repeat with the other skin and the rest of the sprouts, and keep both rolls covered with the damp tea towel.

Test the oil
5. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until wooden chopsticks or tongs inserted into the oil immediately bubble. Carefully lower the end of one of the rolls into the hot oil; it will fry very quickly, so move it through the oil in order to lightly brown every part of the soy skin, both top and bottom. Remove the fried roll to a cutting board and fry the other roll.

6. Cut each roll into 6 or 8 pieces, depending upon the number of your guests, and arrange the rolls on one or two serving plates. Drizzle the sauce over the "fish" and squirt some more of your chili oil on them as well to add a nice red flourish. Serve while the "fish" are still hot and crispy.

Ready to eat!
Note: Soy sauce paste is a thickened savory condiment with the consistency of catsup. It's used as is as a dipping sauce or in stir-fries, or it can be added to sauces like here to provide more body as well as rounder flavor. There's many brands out there, so find one you like. If you don't have any handy, oyster sauce is a good substitute. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Garlic that will improve your life by 1000%

One of the highlights for me whenever we’ve sat down for a northern Chinese hotpot dinner has always been the tawny brown heads of sweet pickled garlic that were plunked down with the plates of pickled cabbage and boiled peanuts. Fixed this way, the garlic evolves from bitingly hot to mellow and sweet, with the vinegar and salt providing cleansing edges. I like my garlic exotically dark, so I use very dark brown sugar and a tasty but cheap balsamic vinegar, which also lends a lovely tang to the little cloves.

But the real prize in this recipe is the vinegar that emerges from this process. Nothing, but nothing can equal this vinegar. It has everything you could ask for in a sauce: sweet, sour, salty, garlic, and all of them in perfect balance. This one ingredient I prize so much that I never give it away, hoarding it like a miser and serving it dribbled over tidbits only when I'm certain that it will be appreciated. Selfish? Oh yes indeed. But completely sensible. Wait until you taste it; you'll understand.

Like so many of China's greatest culinary masterpieces, this is understated, simple, and requires only a modicum of ingredients and preparation. But also like quite a few of my favorite dishes, this does require patience. These lovely heads of garlic have to settle quietly into the sweetened and gently salted vinegar for a couple of months - or even longer if you can bear it - before they surrender their fire and become mellow enough to eat just the way they are. Then and only then do you pluck out a sweetly drowned head of garlic, surreptitiously licking your fingers, and squeeze a lovely clove out of its jacket and into your mouth. 

If you find this as intoxicating as I do, consider preparing a batch every three months or so and have jars continually mellowing away in the pantry or on the shelf. I label my crocks and so put them into regular rotation. As summer draws near, you still will find plenty of use for them, since the luscious sauce is great in salads and drizzled over things like fresh, flavorful tomatoes. I'm getting hunger pangs just thinking about a still warm Brandywine tomato, sliced into wedges, lightly salted, and oozing with this loveliest of vinegar sauces.

A note on the ingredients: I tend to use a good, cheap balsamic vinegar here for a couple of reasons. I haven't been too happy with the taste of lots of the Chinese vinegars I have tried; they seem raw and yeasty, rather than tasting of rice wines that have been nudged over into the realm of delicious tartness. However, there has also been a bit of concern lately over the amount of lead that has found its way into balsamic vinegars, so do your research. 

Warning: may cause cravings
As for the sugar, my hands-down favorite is the extremely dark brown sugar that you can buy in some Korean markets. This sugar is soft and moist and tastes like molasses, and it works wonders here.  Finally, I have read that Chinese garlic is unclean, full of pesticides, and often sold at such outrageously low prices that American farmers can't compete. So, if you worry about things like I do, buy heavy, firm, plump heads of garlic that are organically grown, and you'll find that the flavor just cannot be beat. I take this one step further and plant the biggest cloves so that I have nice green shoots to cook with in the cooler months, as well as more heavy, firm, plump, organic heads to harvest later on.  

Win win.

Sweet pickled garlic cloves 
Táng suàn  糖蒜 
Makes 8 heads of pickled garlic

Special equipment:  
1-quart jar or crock
A plate that fits easily inside the mouth of the jar or crock

Garlic and brining liquid:
8 large heads of fresh garlic
½ cup sea salt
6 cups hot water

3 cups balsamic vinegar
2¼ cups dark brown sugar
1 cup water

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1. Clean the heads of garlic, but don’t break them apart.  Peel off most of the outer layers of the garlic skin, leaving only a layer or two over the garlic cloves.  Carefully scrub the root end and cut off as much as possible without cutting into the cloves or breaking the heads.
Organic American garlic

2. Dissolve the salt in the hot water and let it cool.  Place the garlic in the cool salt water and let them soak for about 24 hours to remove some of the harshness and to make the garlic as clean as possible.

3. Place the vinegar, sugar, water, and soy sauce in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, and then stir it until the sugar dissolves.  Allow the marinade to cool down to room temperature.

4. Remove the garlic from the salt water and place them in the clean jar or crock without rinsing the salt water off.  Pour the cool marinade over them, place the plate on top of the garlic to help submerge them in the marinade, and cover the container.  Lightly stir the garlic every day or two for a week and then store the garlic in a cool place for about 2 weeks before using.  Taste a clove of garlic to see whether its flavor is sweet and relatively gentle.  As soon as the garlic is pickled to your liking, pack the garlic in small jars or plastic containers and store them in the refrigerator; they will keep a long time that way.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The best egg you've ever eaten

This is simply the perfect egg.

First of all, the whites of the egg are deliciously flavored. A good dousing of Shaoxing rice wine lends a heady sherry and mushroom aroma to the eggs. This is tastefully and tastily countered with an infusion of dried salted plums, ginger, lemon peel, and whole peppercorns that turns this from a one-note wonder into a dish worthy of the most finicky eater. Rarely do egg whites taste of much of anything, but here they serve as the perfectly flavored foil for a yolk that is molten.

Yes, you read that right: the center here is soft and runs like liquid gold, but it's also cooked to just the absolute perfect degree so that while the yolk remains just this side of solid, you won't taste any rawness. Instead, the yolk serves as a delicate sauce for the white that cradles it.

But this dish is not just about flavors and aromas -- it's primarily all about texture.

In most boiled egg recipes, the white is rendered into a relatively reasonable facsimile of a ping-pong ball. Those that aren't tend to look soggy and runny and anything but appetizing. However, the folks in Jiangsu’s capital of Nanjing have turned the practice of cooking an egg into the highest art, for the whites are cooked for a mere 30 seconds, made to sit in the hot water for another three minutes, and then quickly cooled down. What this does is to give the whites the texture of the tenderest custard, and the yolks are sent just barely over that fine line between raw and cooked.

I've experimented with a bunch of different versions, happy to indulge my passion, and after tossing in this and taking out that, this has come to be my favorite way to prepare eggs, period. It isn't too sweet, but also has enough pizazz from the rice wine and dried sour plums and all those seasonings to make me sit up and take notice. You too can play around with the flavorings to your heart's content; just be sure and not use anything with, say, chicken fat or sesame oil, as the eggs should come across as clean and greaseless.

Traditionally this dish is made with fresh duck eggs, but because they are relatively difficult to find in the States, I've substituted large hen eggs; feel free to use whatever type of eggs you like, but do know that you'll have to experiment a bit in order to get the texture the way you want it, since the size of the egg will greatly affect the cooking time. The only caveat I want to make is that the eggs should be organic and free range; the better quality egg you use, the better the result, since this is after all just about one ingredient.   

The eggs are best when they are about a week old in order to make them easier to peel. Bring them to room temperature before cooking in order to a) have the perfect cooking time and b) keep them from bursting. I like to prick the round ends of the eggs with a large tack, since there's a little air pocket in there, and if you give the air an escape route, the whites will be able to swell without breaking the shells.

Salted plums
The only unusual ingredients here are the dried salted plums, called huàméi 話梅. You can find these in just about any Chinese grocery store in the candy aisle. They are very tart and sweet and salty all at the same time, and usually used as a tea snack. 

Drunken eggs with molten centers 
Tángxīn huādiāo zuìdàn 溏心花雕醉蛋
Makes 6 eggs

6 organic, free-range eggs about a week old and at room temperature
1 cup water
7 dried salted plums
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, smashed with the side of a cleaver
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon whole white or black peppercorns
Zest from half a lemon
1 cup Shaoxing rice wine, plus more as needed

1. Use a sharp tack or pin to poke a hole in the round end of the egg; just barely break through the shell without puncturing the inside of the egg.

2. Place the eggs in a small saucepan and cover with cool tap water by about 1 inch. Place the pan uncovered on the stove and bring to a boil stirring the entire time to center the yolk. As soon as the water comes to a full boil, where big bubbles are bursting over the surface, start counting down 30 seconds. At the end of 30 seconds, remove the pan from the heat, cover, and wait exactly 3 minutes. Then, immediately drain the eggs and cover them with cool tap water. Change the water a few times until the water remains cool. Drain the eggs and lightly crack them all over with the back of a spoon, but don't remove the shell.

Ready to enjoy
3. Clean the saucepan and bring the filtered water, dried salted plums, ginger, salt, peppercorns, and lemon zest to a boil; lower the heat to a bare simmer and cook the marinade for around 5 minutes. Allow the marinade to cool to room temperature and add the rice wine.

4. Place the eggs in a tall, narrow container. (This allows the eggs to soak in as little marinade as possible.) Pour the marinade over the eggs, cover, and refrigerate the eggs for a few hours; add more rice wine if needed for the marinade to completely cover the eggs. When the eggs are cold, shell them and return the eggs to the marinade for 24 to 36 hours. If you are not eating them within 36 hours, remove the eggs from the marinade so that they don't get too salty.

5. Serve the eggs as a simple appetizer by slicing them in half and serving on any light and refreshing vegetable, like microgreens or radish shoots or finely shredded leeks. Or, serve them as a summer breakfast on hot toast, with noodles or Congee, or as a midnight snack. It's hard to go wrong with this, the perfect egg.