Monday, October 5, 2015

A Beijing Hui Muslim classic: beef shanks & eggs

Beijing’s Hui Muslim dishes are without a doubt some of my favorite in the region. Much of this has to do with the creative ways in which every bit of an animal is used. In the West, we tend to toss out the less popular parts of an animal, but that is not the case in China. Not only are Chinese cooks frugal – which they most definitely are – but they also appreciate the intriguing textures that the heart, stomach, and shin have to offer.

These variety meats are the kind of things that every single Beijing-style Muslim eatery I’ve ever eaten in offers. If they are a small, family-run place, they will display them right in the front window, the same way Cantonese delis hang ducks and pigs near the sidewalk. The flavors are rich and savory, and based on a spice-infused marinade that is colored by soy sauce and slightly sweetened with rock sugar.

Edible stained glass window
Depending on what time of day it is and how hot it is outside, we might have a plate full of cool, braised liver, tendons, heart, tripe, and so forth to start off a meal. Or perhaps a breakfast sandwich of tender, braised shin shaved into paper-thin slices and packed into a sesame-paste biscuit, or shaobing. Dinner might include some eggs, bean curd, and thick seaweed cooked in that same braising liquid, as well. Alongside this, we would usually order some millet porridge and a plate of stir-fried greens.

Beef shins are a cut of meat that really deserves your love. They’re cheap, nothing but completely edible, and are ribboned with thin tendons that turn into translucent, tender codas between the gorgeous meat. I mean, look at that photo above and tell me that isn’t drop-dead beautiful.

These shins will be soft and as relaxed as a kitten when they are raw – see the photo below. As soon as they hit hot water, though, they will shrink up into tense little balls and stay that way, so don’t worry about crowding your pan at the very beginning. This shrinkage is due to the tendons, which will become incredibly hard at this point and only dissolve into a delectable gumminess after a slow braise.
Raw tendons

I get my beef shins at a Chinese market in Oakland that sells them in sets of six or so in plastic bags, so that is what I’ve gotten used to as my basic measure. However, there’s nothing stopping you from dividing the recipe in half or less, or even multiplying it a couple of times for parties. Be sure a make the braised eggs with this fabulous sauce after you pluck out the beef – they are just as delicious as the shins.

Braised beef shanks and eggs
Lŭ níujiàn, lŭ dàn 滷牛腱、滷蛋
Serves 8 to 12
Beautiful beautiful beautiful

6 boneless beef shins 
Water, as needed
½ cup thinly sliced ginger 
4 green onions 
6 tablespoons regular soy sauce 
4 star anise 
½ stick cinnamon 
1 tablespoon fennel seeds 
2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns 
¼ cup rock sugar, or ½ piece of brown slab sugar 
2 dried Thai chilies, optional 
1 piece cured tangerine peel, optional 
1 cup rice wine, optional 

12 to 18 small to medium eggs, boiled until firm (see directions below) and peeled

To serve:
Thinly sliced green onions
Toasted sesame oil

1. Place the shins in a wide pot, cover them with water, bring the water to a boil over high heat, lower the heat, simmer the meats for about 10 minutes, and then dump out the water. Rinse the scum off of the meat and the pan.

2. Return the meats to the pan, and add all of the ingredients up through the optional rice wine, as well as enough water to cover the meats. Bring the pan to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the shins until they can easily be pierced with a chopstick, about 3 hours. You can also make these in a pressure cooker: braise on high for about an hour. Remove the shins to a bowl, cool, and then refrigerate them for easier slicing.
Ready for the braise

3. Add the peeled eggs to the strained sauce. Bring the uncovered pan to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and slowly simmer the eggs for an hour or two, adding only as much water as needed to keep them more or less submerged. Cool the eggs and sauce to room temperature and let them sit in the sauce for at least two days so that the flavors really permeate the eggs.

4. To serve, slice the shanks crosswise (against the grain) into really thin slices. Fan these out onto a plate or a bowl of hot noodles. Cut the eggs into wedges. Drizzle them with a bit of the sauce, if you like, or simply a bit of toasted sesame oil and a sprinkle of green onions. 

How to correctly boil eggs

Prick the round ends with a sharp pin or tack, as this gives that bubble of air inside the shell an escape route and so prevent the eggs from cracking.

Braised eggs - tan down to the yolks
Place the eggs in a pot of warm water, and bring the water to a boil over high heat, stirring the eggs very often as they come to a boil so that the yolks become centered in the whites. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook them for about 8 minutes. Dump out the water, cover them with cool tap water, and then peel them when they have cooled down.

Whenever you make hard-boiled eggs for recipes like this, look for two things: the smallest eggs possible, and eggs that are not too fresh. Smaller eggs absorb the sauce’s flavors faster, while older eggs are easier to peel. Also, if you gently stir the eggs as they are coming to a boil, you will keep the yolks centered in the still-soft whites; once the water barely comes to a boil, the whites will have set and you can stop stirring. Never boil the eggs at full blast, though, as this will make the whites tough. A gentle simmer is enough – they will also be cooked in the sauce, so there’s no need to overdo it. When cooking hardboiled eggs, keep the lid off, otherwise pressure will build up in the pan and the egg whites will have a honeycomb texture.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Chinese white liquor - brews you'll want to enjoy

A good Chinese supermarket will generally offer an intimidating wall of bottles fill with booze. 

If they're organized, at one side will be the rice wines, another edge will contain grape wines, and somewhere in there will be the stuff called “white liquor” - that last one is what we’re going to look at today. Other grocery stores like to make things as difficult as possible, as can be seen in these photos, where rice wines are jumbled in with the white liquors, perhaps just to make things interesting.

Hard alcohol is very different in China from the rest of the world. It is referred to in English as white liquor, which is a direct translation of the Chinese name: báijǐu 白酒, although some refer to these spirits as báigār 白乾兒 after an old variety traditionally made in Hebei. Except for a few varieties seasoned with herbs or other additives, these are almost always clear, hence their name.
Shaoxing wine (L) & white liquors

White liquor is beloved as a cooking ingredient for the elusive flavors it lends to certain dishes, like smoked chicken, although the better ones are of course meant to be reserved for appreciative sipping. These are best served neat at room temperature in wide small porcelain bowls similar to the cups used for rice wine, as this allows their aromas to be fully enjoyed. But then again, this is hard liquor — most of these spirits are 80 to 120 proof — and so they are in many ways more akin to vodka than the much milder rice wines of China.

These strong distilled spirits are mainly fermented out of cooked sorghum, wheat, barley, Job’s tears, sticky rice, or even millet, with other ingredients like dried peas, therapeutic herbs, or even flowers occasionally lending unique aromas and flavors to the brew. As with rice wines’ classifications, the names suggest the best pairings for these white liquors, for alcohol is meant — as always in China — to be enjoyed with complementary bar snacks. 
Two sorghum liquors

Do note that the English on the labels will be of varying levels of helpfulness, as sometimes old names are used, while other wing it, as can be seen in the photo to the right, which gives Gaoliang as "Kao Liang Chiew" and Fenjiu as "Fen Chiew." When in doubt, show a clerk the Chinese characters for the liquor you'd like to try.

A good white liquor to try first is Guizhou’s Maotai, whose heavy “sauce aroma” (jiàngxiāng 醬香) is formed by its pronounced ester compounds; this is what allows it to stand up to heavily seasoned foods. It's powerful stuff, but really worth getting to know on a personal basis. Pair it with any of the Central Highlands' spicy and numbing foods. 

Sweeter dishes would pair better with something like Wuliangye of Sichuan and its “strong aroma” (nóngxiāng 濃香), while more delicate ones would be complemented by the “light aroma” (qīngxiāng 清香) of something like Shanxi’s ancient Fenjiu.

There is also the “rice aroma” (mǐxiāng 米香) of white spirits brewed from rice, as well as white liquors with a sugary “honey aroma” (fēngxiāng 蜂香) and even the more complex brews boasting of a “layered aroma” (jiānxiāng 兼香).

Meant for sipping
Because these are clear spirits, the main difference among the seemingly endless varieties is whether they are seasoned in some way. Unflavored ones rely on the aroma of the grains and pulses used in their distillation to create their unique flavors. Others, though, go in the opposite direction and tickle the senses in different ways. For example, Meiguilu (“rose dew”) is a floral variety that works well as a seasoning in a number of dishes, particularly such rich sweets as moon cakes, where it adds an almost indefinable whiff of roses.

One of the most famous of China’s heady alcoholic brews is made in Gansu: Ng Ka Py. A type of sorghum white lightning flavored with a member of the ivy family, this is the drink that John Steinbeck in East of Eden described as having the taste of “good rotten apples.”

Of course, not everyone wants to have hard liquor with a meal. In that case, I'd always suggest a good, chilled beer - it is a perfect match for most of China's savory dishes.  

Friday, September 25, 2015

The autumn moon on your plate

My first year in Taiwan, I was more than a bit confused by the Moon Festival. Called the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhongqiujie) in Chinese, this lands in the exact middle of fall according to the lunar calendar, a date that according to our Western calendar just barely makes it into the beginning of autumn. 

So, first of all, the end of September or early October didn't seem like the middle of anything. And the celebrations were so foreign to my tastes... just wandering around in the evening, enjoying the full moon with a stuffed pastry. Okay, I did understand the pastry part (who wouldn't?), but looking at the moon was just weird to me back then. I had rarely even noticed the moon before Taiwan, except of course when it did something particularly remarkable, like disappear in an eclipse.

But that is one of the things I love about Chinese culture: the appreciation of everyday miracles. Like the moon. 

Now she's part of my life in so many ways, and I always know exactly what phase she's in. (And yes, the moon is most definitely a girl. I'll get to that later.) I like to look for her whenever I get up at night, checking to see how she's doing and enjoying her most when she's round and full and bathing the hills with a white light. 
Mmmmm, eggs

The Chinese believe that you can see the face of Chang'e there, who secretly tasted her husband's elixir of immortality and then fled his wrath by escaping to the moon. Others see an osmanthus (sweet olive) tree when the dark areas are at the top of the moon. And of course there's the rabbit pounding out more of that elixir in a mortar, which is why rabbits are part of the Moon Festival celebrations, too, and you'll see them scampering over wrapping paper, boxes of the Chinese filled pastries known as moon cakes, and prancing on depictions of the moon.

There's not a whole lot of other foods traditionally associated with the Moon Festival, but I'd like to change that. This one in particular should be a big hit: the poetic Clouds Covering the Mid-Autumn Moon. Based on a recipe from one of my absolute favorite Cantonese food writers, Jiang Xianzhu, this is a deliciously simple way with eggs that even kids will love. You can make this as simple or as fancy as you like, tailoring it to fit your menu and your guests.

Ms. Jiang recommends topping this with just light soy sauce, some warmed-up oil, and a sprinkling of both thinly sliced green onions and some cilantro. And the eggs are quite good that way. But I like to tinker with the classics, and have found that this is the perfect canvas for a wide variety of embellishments.
Silky, savory custard

One of the best uses either chopped flower mushrooms or tiny dried shrimp. You can, of course, use diced poultry or meat, fresh shrimp, or whatever else strikes your fancy. But little in life brings such consistent pleasure to my palate as those flower mushrooms, and I never seem to get enough funk on my plate, so those teeny shrimp are a close second place.

This Sunday (September 27) is the Moon Festival. So, steam a bowl of these gloriously silky eggs for a late dinner, take it by a window or sit out on the porch, and spoon in these luxurious eggs while smiling back at Chang'e.

Clouds covering the mid-autumn moon 
Yún gài Zhōngqīu yuè 雲蓋中秋月 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, 2 to 3 as a main dish

4 large, really fresh, organic, free-range eggs
2 cups cool water
1 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 soaked flower mushrooms, or 3 tablespoons tiny dried shrimp
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 green onion, trimmed and thinly sliced

1. Place a trivet in a wide pot and fill the pot with just enough water that it is about an eighth of an inch below the top of the trivet; this will keep the eggs silky by not overheating the bottom of the dish. 
Cover your steamer

2. Beat the eggs lightly and add both the water and salt. Beat them a bit more and then pour the liquid through a strainer into a shallow heatproof 4-cup dish with a rim. Cover the dish with foil and place it the trivet. (This foil will keep the water and steam out of the eggs, as this will also help with the texture.) Cover the pot and bring it to a boil, and then immediately lower the heat so that it barely simmers. Steam the eggs for about 10 to 12 minutes. Check to see whether the eggs are done by lifting up the edge of the foil; gently shake the dish to make sure that the center is solid. However, don't overcook the eggs, as they will get bubbly and spongy around the edges

3. While the eggs are steaming, prepare the sauce. If you are using the mushrooms, trim off the stems and cut the caps into a fine dice. If you are using the shrimp, place them in a strainer and rinse them with cold water to remove most of the salt, then wrap them in a paper towel to sop off the moisture.

4. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat and add either the mushrooms or shrimp. Adjust the heat as needed, stir-frying them gently so that they barely brown and crisp up. Add the oyster sauce and rice wine, stir a few times, and taste, adjusting the seasoning as needed. Pour the sauce over the steamed eggs and sprinkle with the onions. Serve immediately, allowing your guests to spoon the eggs onto their rice.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bite-sized delights for the Moon Festival

In the previous three posts, we've looked at how to make the traditionally sized moon cakes that are about three inches across.

But there is one other variety that has become popular, perhaps because you don't have to share it: little one-inch pastries that are just right for snacking. Basically, this is the same recipe as the main one, but here are a few tips that will help you make these successfully the first time around.

Small wooden molds that are about 1-inch square are typically used for mini moon cakes. Clean and prepare them as directed below, making sure that they are completely dry before you use them. Like the large ones, they should be dusted with flour before making your pastries and then often during the process to keep the cakes from sticking.
Me-sized moon cakes

Divide the dough into 30 pieces, and roll each piece into a ball. Be sure and cover any dough you are not immediately working on.

The next step is to roll the filling into 30 small balls. Finally, have the glaze mixed, and your baking sheets lined and ready, and the oven heated to 325°F; this gets everything ready so that you will put these moon cakes together very quickly.

Lightly dust your board with flour, and then pat a ball of dough into a circle that is about 3 inches wide; leave a small hump in the center, since you will be wrapping the dough rather thickly at the bottom, and this helps to even the pastry out. Use a dough scraper as shown on the right to lift up the pastry circle, as it will probably stick to the board. 
Use your scraper to lift these up

Place a ball of filling in the center and then bring the dough up and around the filling; it might tear or break, but that's all right because the dough is soft enough that you can just patch it up.

The next step is really important for this and the regular-sized moon cakes:

Lightly roll the ball between the palms of your hands to smooth it and even out the dough. The warmth of your palms will be just enough to melt the caramel and oil so that the dough slides evenly over the filling. If you are working with an especially soft filling, like the date paste, some of the dough might poke through, but that's not a problem, as it won't leak or melt in the oven.
Wrap the dough around the filling

Press the still slightly warmed ball into some flour on one side and then pat the ball into your mold. Use your fingertips to press the dough all the way down to the bottom of the mold and along the sides so that there are no air pockets. Turn the mold over and whack it on your counter. (Use a towel to protect it if it is tile or some other breakable material). The moon cake will fall out after a whack or two. Dust off most of the flour with a soft brush and place the moon cake on the prepared baking sheet. Lightly brush the glaze all over the pastry. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling until you are done.

Bake the mini moon cakes for about 25 minutes, turning the sheet halfway through the cooking to ensure even browning. The moon cakes are done when they are golden brown (with the dark glaze) or a honey color (with the lightglaze).
Make this a double layer ball

Caring for your moon cake molds

You can purchase moon cake molds online or in some Chinese cookware stores, especially in cities with large Chinese populations like San Francisco. Most are carved wood, and they are beautiful to have on your kitchen shelves even if you never bake a single moon cake in your life.

In addition to the traditional wooden ones, plastic molds are now available in some online stores. Use whatever you fancy and in whatever size you like.

Assorted wooden molds
Select wooden molds that have no cracks or insect damage. Check to see that the carved areas are even, have no rough edges, and look clean.

Once you get a wooden mold home, wash it thoroughly inside and out with a brush, dish soap, and hot water. Rinse the mold carefully, towel it off, and turn it upside-down to air dry.

A good way to keep your molds crack free in dry climates is to coat the wood with mineral oil. Other oils can turn rancid, especially if you don't use the utensil often, so mineral oil is what I use to coat my molds, as well as my wooden chopping blocks, salad bowls, and so forth.

After the oil has had a chance to soak into the wood (overnight is plenty enough), wipe off the excess oil with a paper towel. (Beware of trying to fill your molds with the oil, as there is always a hole in the side to allow air to enter under the dough and eliminate a possible vacuum - very clever, imho.) Store the molds out of the sunlight, which might dry and bleach them.

Not-so-guilty pleasures
Before you use the molds, rinse and dry them if they are at all dusty. Then, coat the insides of the molds with flour and knock off the excess.

As you form your moon cakes, dust the insides of the molds whenever the cakes start to stick.

Once you are finished with the molds, wash and dry them immediately so that the dough doesn't harden inside of the crevices.

If you are a lover of antiques, keep your eye open for antique moon cake molds, especially if you travel in China. Some are intensely beautiful!

Illustration from All Under Heaven (McSweeney's + Ten Speed Press, Spring 2016)
Copyright (c) 2015, Carolyn Phillips