Monday, October 27, 2014

Quick Shanghainese pickles

Jackson Street in San Francisco's Chinatown used to have a little hole-in-the-wall call the Star Cafe. It was my kind of place.

Star Cafe was only wide enough to squeeze in the semblance of a kitchen in on the right, run a counter down the middle, and stuff a couple of worn tables and chairs in the back.

The toilet was a creaky affair in the far corner that didn't invite anyone to sit and read the paper, and it was obviously treasured more as a place to stash wet mops, extra to-go boxes, and extra chairs than it was as a restroom.

But what this little dive lacked in refinement, it more than made up for in flavor and price. These folks really were from Shanghai, they cooked what they knew, and we would usually stroll out of there completely stuffed for under ten bucks. Not many places in The City have that type of reputation.

What I really loved there were its Shanghai Mustard Pickles. A huge glass jar of them would be perched in their old cooler, the pickles kept crisp and cold, just the way I wanted them. We'd order a bowl of them to munch on while we perused the menu, and I'd usually commandeer the lion's portion of the pickles before washing them down with a glass of cold, sweetened soybean milk that was also homemade. 

One day when we tromped over there for another meal, we found the doors locked and a sign on them saying the owners were away on a trip to China. That trip turned into years while the storefront stayed empty, and I longed in vain for my pickles, as no one else I knew every offered them. Then, one fine day I ran across a recipe for Mustard Stems Pickled in Sweet Rice Vinegar in the wonderful Bruce Cost book, Asian Ingredients. With a little tweaking, his pickles soon turned into the ones in my dreams. (Thanks, Bruce!)

Trimmed jiecai & ginger
This recipe calls for a Chinese vegetable called -- depending upon the grocery store -- gay choyjiecai, or Chinese mustard cabbage. It is a slightly bitter vegetable that's great in a stir-fry with nothing else but lots of ginger and chicken fat seasoned with a bit of salt. But it's in this pickle that this variety of mustard greens really shines. That gentle mustardy fragrance and flavor poke their way out from the sweet brine and spices, and they are strong enough to stand up to some brutal treatment, like being salted and having boiling vinegar poured over them. Make up a batch and store it in the refrigerator. If you like sausages, try stir-frying them with sliced onions and this pickle for a piquant and utterly divine dish.

Shanghai mustard pickles 
Tángcù jiècài  
Makes about a quart

5 medium heads of Chinese mustard cabbage
2 tablespoons sea salt
4 cups sushi vinegar (usually called "seasoned rice vinegar")
8 dried chili peppers
5 crushed cloves of garlic
10 thin slices of ginger
Boiling water, as needed

1. Trim off any flimsy leaves from the mustard cabbage and reserve them for some other use. Cut the stems into 2- to 3-inch lengths and then cut each length into pieces no more than half an inch wide. Rinse the mustard cabbage carefully, shake dry, and place it in a colander. Sprinkle the salt over the vegetables, lightly rub the salt in, and let them sit for an hour or so to remove most of the excess water.

2. Clean a quart-sized glass jar and lid, making sure that there's no oil or soap residue in there, as this could cause the pickles to mold. Rinse the jar and lid with boiling water and turn them upside-down to drain.

3. Bring the vinegar to a boil in a medium saucepan along with the peppers, garlic, and ginger; let the brine simmer for a few minutes. Shake the excess salt and water off of the mustard cabbage and place it in the glass jar. Pour the boiling brine over the vegetables and toss them lightly; add a bit of boiling water so that it almost reaches the top of the vegetables. Stir the vegetables every 5 minutes or so as they cool so that all of them turn from an emerald green to an olive shade. As they turn color, they'll shrink, and the brine should soon cover the vegetables. Add a bit more water as needed to keep the vegetables submerged.

4. When the jar is cool, refrigerate it for at least two days. Use a very clean pair of chopsticks or fork to remove the pickles. They'll last at least a month if kept clean and cold.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Taiwanese fall favorite: fried rice noodles with pumpkin

Fried rice noodles are a part of every southern Chinese food tradition. In many places these noodles are fresh and are often called hefen. When I lived in Taipei, both fresh and dried rice noodles were beloved by the local cooks, but if push came to shove, dried rice noodles would have won out.

Called mifen, these were usually stir-fried with vegetables and meats. One of my favorite versions was sold at a tiny farmer’s market just around the corner from where I learned how to paint Chinese landscapes. A dark alley led to a little square where stands were set up, selling mainly fresh produce and meats, but with the occasional food vendor. The one I always ate at served stir-fried mifen with a squid chowder, the finely minced seafood mixed with potato starch to form silky cigars that floated in a thick stock.

Squash, shrimp, & shrooms
As time went on, pumpkin mifen started to take the city by a storm, and soon just about every Taiwanese restaurant and stand offered their own spin on this new combination. 

This one happens to be the one I like best. The pumpkin offers a sweet contrast to the savory meat and mushrooms, and the chewy noodles are just barely cooked through so that they retain their lovely texture. (See the meatless version down below, too.) I have found that butternut squash works even better here than pumpkin, as it is firmer and so does not break apart easily.

Fried rice noodles with pumpkin
Nánguā chǎo mǐfěn 南瓜炒米粉
Southern Fujian & Taiwan
Serves 6 to 8

12 to 16 ounces (or so) butternut squash, pumpkin, or kabocha squash
2 tablespoons small dried shrimp
Cold and boiling water, as needed
3 to 5 black mushrooms, either fresh or dried and plumped up
1 (10 to 12 ounce) package dried thin rice noodles (mifen)
2 green onions, trimmed
4 to 6 ounces boneless pork
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon mild rice wine
1 teaspoon cornstarch
6 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons rice wine
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon mushroom seasoning
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
Taiwanese "rice sticks"

1. First prep all of the ingredients: Peel the squash or pumpkin, remove the seeds, and cut the flesh into thin julienne. Place the shrimp in a small work bowl and cover with boiling water; when they have softened, clean the shrimp and lightly dice. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and cut them into thin slices. Place the rice noodles in a large work bowl and cover them with cool water; when they are pliable, drain them in a colander set in the sink. Use kitchen shears to chop the noodles into shorter lengths — 6 inches long is about right. Slice the green onions thinly on the diagonal, and keep the whites and greens in separate piles. Cut the pork into thin julienne, place it in a small work bowl, and toss it with the light soy sauce, 1 tablespoon rice wine, and cornstarch, and allow the meat to marinate for at least 10 minutes.

Soak til silky
2. Set a wok over medium-high heat. Add half the oil when it is hot and then toss in the pork and all the marinade. Stir-fry the meat until it is slightly browned, and scrape it out into a clean small work bowl. Add the rest of the oil, and then the whites of the green onions, chopped shrimp, and mushrooms to the wok. Stir-fry them quickly until they start to turn gold, and then add the pumpkin plus 1½ cups of water, the 3 tablespoons rice wine, dark soy sauce, mushroom seasoning, and the sugar. Bring the liquid to a boil and reduce the heat to medium-low before covering the wok for around 2 minutes to cook through the pumpkin until it is soft all the way through, but not breaking apart.

3. Remove the cover, raise the heat under the wok to high, and toss in the drained rice noodles. Toss them with the vegetables until most of the liquid has been absorbed by the mifen. Taste and adjust the seasoning a final time. Add the browned pork and onion greens. Sprinkle on as much black pepper as you like. Serve hot.


-  See the directions on how to peel and seed a pumpkin here.

-  Vegetarians can omit the pork and shrimp, but double up on the mushrooms for extra flavor.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The best pumpkin soup around

Southern China is home to a host of sweet soups that are meant to be enjoyed all through the day. One of my favorites is this one: It features pumpkin in all its glory. The only seasonings are some coconut milk, sugar, and a touch of salt, so you really get to taste the pumpkin. This is a breeze to make, and is especially wonderful during autumn, when hard squashes are at their best.

Pumpkins and squash are from the New World, but they have been adopted throughout southern China with delight. Sichuan, for example, has a whole range of dishes that simply are better with pumpkin, like underneath rice crumb pork and in pastry dough. In Cantonese cooking, hard squashes usually show up in sweets like this.

You really can use whatever kind of pumpkin or orange squash you like here. Kabocha squash (which is what is pictured to the right) has a dry, starchy edge to it that is delicious. Pie pumpkins are juicier and have a much sweeter taste. Butternut squash is equally good. So, use whatever you like and looks best.
Kabocha squash

This makes a lot, but it will disappear fast. I refrigerate it in smallish plastic containers that I can microwave for fast breakfasts or late night snacks. You can also use condensed milk instead of the coconut milk and sugar for a more traditional Cantonese taste.

Sweet pumpkin coconut soup with tapioca
Nánguā yèzhī xīmǐlù 南瓜椰汁西米露
Southern China
Serves 6 to 8

1 (3 to 4 pound) pumpkin
Water, as needed
3/4 cup tiny pearl tapioca (not Western-style tapioca)
1 (13.5 ounce) can coconut milk
Sprinkle of sea salt
Sugar or agave syrup to taste

Seed the wedges
1. Use a cleaver or heavy knife to cut the pumpkin into easy-to-handle wedges. Remove the stem end and all the seeds. Use a potato peeler to remove the skin. Chop the flesh into 1-inch (or so) cubes. Place the pumpkin in a large pot and barely cover it with water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat and then lower it to a simmer.Cook the pumpkin until it is cooked through, but not mushy.

2. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting. Sprinkle the tapioca over the pumpkin and gently shake the pan so that all of the tapioca becomes submerged, but do not stir it in. This will help prevent the tapioca from lumping up on the bottom and burning. After 10 minutes, remove the pan from the stove and shake it again gently to mix in the tapioca. 

Then remove the skin
3. After another 20 minutes, add the coconut milk, salt, and sugar, and then gently stir the soup, adding more boiling water as needed to thin it out. Serve this hot or warm. To reheat, use a microwave to avoid burning the tapioca and breaking down the pumpkin too much.


− The tapioca will plump up quite a bit if you refrigerate the soup, so add a bit more water to the container if the soup is on the dry side.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Dining in Jiangsu on what tastes like meat, only better

Vegetarian — and even vegan — food in China can be extraordinarily sensual. There is not a scrap of meat in this dish, for example, and yet the flavors are so rich and the textures so varied that you could almost swear pork was hiding in there somewhere.

Two secrets make this divine: a silky sauce that hits every note between sweet and savory, and the use of gluten puffs to complement the meaty texture of the mushrooms. Gluten puffs are rarely used outside of China’s Yangtze Valley cuisines. Taiwan is sole exception that I can think of, as there these puffs are braised with peanuts in a sweetish sauce that goes great with congee. My guess that they were probably introduced by Mainlanders during the great immigration of 1949.
Fresh outta the package

No matter where they are made, though, gluten puffs are worth knowing. They are sold as solid balls in plastic bags, but their looks are deceiving, for they resemble some sort of fried dough balloons. They crush easily, so transport them carefully from the store to your home. Keep them refrigerated, and they will stay fresh for at least a couple of weeks. 

When you prepare them, the most important thing to remember is that they must be soaked in boiling water. This softens them and so keeps them from crumbling into bits. The bath also gets rid of the oily residue on their surface, which can taste a bit stale. Once they’ve turned into floppy rags, cut them in half and toss them into a braise that contains some sugar, as is this what sets off their flavor. Satiny in texture, they will soak up the seasonings beautifully. Do note that even though I keep on adding more and more puffs to this recipe, there never seems to be enough once I start to eat. They deflate in the sauce, but they also take on a gentle chewiness that is indescribably wonderful.
Soaked puffs 'n mushrooms

Don’t forget the bok choy, either. It provides just the right amount of fresh sweetness and visual contrast to this beautiful Buddhist dish. (If you are aiming for a strict vegetarian dish, leave out aromatics and wine, of course.)

Braised mushrooms and gluten puffs
Xiānggū shāo miànjīn  香菇燒麵筋
Jiangsu and Buddhist vegetarian
Serves 4

8 dried black mushrooms
Cool and/or boiling water, as needed
15 to 20 gluten puffs
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger, optional
Whites of 1 green onion, chopped, optional
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
Lovely brown balloons
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or water
1 teaspoon (or so) rock sugar
8 ounces baby bok choy
Greens of 1 green onion, chopped, optional
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. If you have the time, soak the mushrooms overnight in cool water. Otherwise, place the mushrooms in a heatproof work bowl and cover them with boiling water by at least 2 inches, as they will expand. When they have become soft and pliable, cut off the stems (reserve them for stock) and cut the caps in halves or quarters. Strain and reserve the soaking liquid.

2. Put the gluten puffs in a heatproof work bowl and pour boiling water over them. After a few minutes, use chopsticks to toss the puffs around in the water so that their shells soften. Pour off the water, rinse the gluten puffs with tap water, gently squeeze them dry, and cut each one in half.

3. Place a wok over high heat, and then swirl in the oil. Add the optional ginger and onion whites, and fry these until they start to turn golden. Toss the mushrooms with this for a minute or so, and then pour in their soaking liquid. Add the soy sauce, rice wine or water, and sugar, and then sprinkle the gluten puffs on top. Bring the liquid to a boil and then lower the heat to a bare simmer, adding boiling water only if absolutely necessary. Slowly cook the mushrooms and gluten for 20 to 30 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been reduced. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
A nest is best

4. While the mushrooms are cooking, cut each bok choy in half or quarters, as needed. Rinse them well, paying special attention to the bases of the leaves where dirt collects. Shake them as dry in a colander. The recipe can be prepared ahead of time up to this point. Just before serving, heat the mushroom mixture until it boils.

5. Add the bok choy to the wok, cover, and bring the liquid to a boil. After a minute, remove the cover, shake the wok around a bit, sprinkle on the optional green onions and sesame oil, and then plate the dish. It is prettiest when the greens are arranged into a nest, with the mushrooms and gluten piled in the center.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pure yum from Shanghai

Leaves are turning yellow, clouds threaten rain, and the garden looks like it is about ready to take a long nap. It must be autumn. As the weather starts to take on a distinctly chilly edge, my thoughts turn to my favorite warming foods, dishes that welcome the shorter days and make me want to have dinner earlier than scheduled. Today's recipe is just that sort of a meal.

One of the true delights of homestyle cooking along the Yangtze is its ability to comfort the soul as well as the stomach. In this dish, for example, is a luscious combination of super-tender cabbage threads seasoned with a bit of pork, and while that might not sound like much, the results are incomparable.
Its Chinese name calls to mind the English dish “mushy peas,” for lanhu rousi literally means “soft mush pork threads.” But just as the British love their peas, the people near Shanghai adore this. It is simplicity itself: finely shredded napa cabbage is slowly cooked in chicken stock until it turns soft and silky, with shreds of pork and ginger offering a touch of texture and flavor.

I have changed up the recipe a bit, since I have tossed the raw pork with pink salt. This lends the pork a bit more personality, turning it a pretty rosy hue that contrasts with the glossy gold of the cabbage. It also creates more of a hammy flavor, and I love how these little bits then shimmer against the soft cosset of vegetables, rather than simply float in the background.
Boring gets a makeover
This serves four as part of a larger dinner, but to be honest, I could easily devour this all by myself. So, if you are offering only one more dish, I’d count on this serving two people at the most, but it is easily multiplied. The amount of cabbage will probably terrify you as you slice it up, but I promise that it will cook down quickly into a sweet, porridge-like puddle with savory notes from the chicken and pork. It’s heavenly.

Creamy cabbage with shredded pork
Lànhú ròusī   爛糊肉絲
Serves 4

2 (or so) ounces lean boneless pork
½ teaspoon sea salt
A pinch of pink (curing) salt, optional

1 head of napa cabbage, between 1 and 1½ pounds
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely shredded ginger
2 cups unsalted chicken stock 
¼ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons cool water

Shanghai comfort food
1. Rinse the pork and pat it dry. Cut it across the grain into thin pieces, and then slice these into thin strips. Place the pork in a small work bowl and toss with the two salts. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the pork for a couple of hours to allow the pink salt time to work its magic and give the meat a hammy flavor and rosy hue.

2. Clean and core the cabbage, shake it dry, and cut it against the grain into a thin julienne. Just before you start to cook, rinse the pork thoroughly in a colander to wash off all of the pink salt. Shake the pork dry and empty it onto a paper towel to wick up any remaining moisture.

3. Place a wok over high heat and swirl in the oil once it gets hot. Add the ginger and toast it quickly in the oil to release its fragrance. Sprinkle in the pork shreds and then toss the pork over the heat until it has turned white. Scrape the pork and ginger out into a clean work bowl, leaving as much of the oil in the wok as possible.

4. Return the wok to high heat and add the cabbage. Toss the cabbage until it has wilted. Stir in the pork, stock, salt as needed, and sugar, and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook this uncovered for around 20 minutes, or until the cabbage is very tender. Dribble the cornstarch mixture around the edge of the cabbage and then mix it in thoroughly by swirling the wok around. When the sauce has thickened and turns glossy, taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour the cabbage onto a rimmed plate or into a bowl. Serve hot.