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.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cookies that taste like an ocean breeze

One of my favorite local cookies when I lived in Taiwan was flavored with sea moss. I know, that doesn't sound like the most tantalizing flavor in the world, but the sea moss brought with it a faint echo of the sea, a salty edge that cut what would have otherwise been the one-note sweetness of a run-of-the-mill packaged cookie. But I'm a confirmed sucker for anything that contrasts two or more tastes, and this cookie fit my nascent foodie predilections to a T.

These cookies can still occasionally be found on this side of the Pacific, but they were never as good as I remembered. Maybe it was just being in Taipei that seasoned these thin wafers, or maybe my palate was changing. Whatever it was, I knew I had to find another way to satisfy my cravings. 

What I ended up with is this, a buttery cookie that really is an unabashed moss green. And in addition to its gorgeous color, the saltiness and delectable aroma of the main ingredient are highlighted with no hesitation here. This is basically a shortbread cookie (there I go showing my Scot roots again), with butter providing the crumbly texture and subtle richness instead of the vegetable shortening in the crispy original, so I call my creation Sea Moss Sandies.

Sea moss
Sea moss, or taitiao (literally, moss strands), is becoming more and more common in Chinese groceries nowadays, so look for it next time you check out an Asian grocery; it will probably be near the dried seaweeds. One 5-ounce package will be the perfect amount for this recipe.

When you open the package, it will look for all the world like you have a couple hanks of green hair. I've found that the best way to deal with this is to toss the whole bunch into a food processor and then pulse away until the sea moss is broken down into little shards. You then can proceed to make the rest of the cookie dough in the processor, so this ends up taking no more than a few minutes to put together and a minimum of fuss.
Serve the cookies with hot green tea, maybe with a side of fruit and an ocean breeze. 

Sea moss sandies 
Táitiào suū  苔條酥
Makes 7 to 8 dozen cookies

1 (5 ounce) package sea moss (taitiao)
2 cups Chinese flour, or 1½ cups all-purpose flour plus ½ cup pastry flour
½ cup powdered sugar, plus more, if desired
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

The crumbly dough
1. Start this recipe at least an hour before you wish to serve the cookies. 

2. Pull the sea moss apart into manageable strands and place them in a food processor equipped with a metal blade. Pulse the sea moss until it has been coarsely chopped. Add the flour and powdered sugar, and then turn the food processor on so that the sea moss becomes finely ground. Add the butter and pulse the mixture until the dough forms a crumbly mass.

3. Divide the dough in two and place each one on a sheet of plastic wrap. Then, form each half into a smooth log a little over an inch in diameter. Wrap the logs in the plastic wrap and either roll them up in Silpat baking sheets or place them in paper towel tubes, as this will help keep the dough's shape. (If you have neither, roll the dough again on a flat board just before cutting it to make it as round as possible.) Freeze the dough for about an hour to make it easier to slice.

4. Heat the oven to 350°F. Cut the dough into ¼-inch slices. Place them about one inch apart on baking sheets lined with Silpat or parchment paper.

Pretty darned exciting, for a cookie
5. Bake the cookies for about 12 to 15 minutes until the edges are golden; rotate the sheets halfway through the baking time. Cool the cookies on the Silpat or parchment paper before removing them. If you wish, dust the cookies with a little more powdered sugar before serving.

6. Store the cookies in an airtight container; freeze for longer storage. They taste best after they have cooled off, as they will be crispier and the sea moss flavor will start to bloom.