Monday, August 22, 2016

Tomatoes, sour plum powder, & wonderful advance reviews for All Under Heaven

A quick bit of self-promotion before we get to this week’s recipe:

All Under Heaven is receiving terrific advance reviews! Here are some of the things people are saying:

"This unprecedented reference will thrill cooks who want to expand their knowledge and move beyond the mainstays of American Chinese restaurant menus. Those who enjoy the thoroughly researched cookbooks of experts such as Claudia Roden (The New Book of Middle Eastern Food) will appreciate Phillips’s comprehensive treatment, which includes historical information, an extensive ingredient glossary, suggested menus, and useful advice." — Library Journal, Starred Review

"Phillips (The Dim Sum Field Guide) offers a comprehensive and thoughtful examination of Chinese cuisine, providing a wealth of appealing recipes for beginner and advanced cooks... This is a broad and discerning approach to regional Chinese cooking... Buy This Book" – Publishers Weekly

"This has the makings of an all-time classic." – Epicurious

"This is sure to be this year's best cookbook, I have no doubt." – Cookbook Junkies

"Carolyn Phillips has written one of the best books on Chinese cooking that I’ve ever encountered. This is one of those books that will inspire all of us to get into our kitchens and cook. It is also one of those books that is almost as enthralling as a bestselling thriller. Phillips is a first-rate writer, and has made this a 'must-have' cookbook for inclusion in any respectable recipe collection." – NetGalley, Five Star Review

"What a work of art... I have always welcomed any book that expands the horizons of our knowledge of Chinese food; now comes one of the best I have seen in ages. All Under Heaven is not just a mere cookbook – in fact, it may be the most comprehensive work to date on an incredibly complex subject... I cannot praise Carolyn’s work enough; I am sure that in the coming years, All Under Heaven will come to be considered a classic, as well as an invaluable reference for any serious cook’s kitchen." – Ken Hom, OBE, celebrity chef and author

Thank you all for these amazing words. I’m humbled and delighted and thrilled! These two books hit the shelves on August 30, but can be preordered just about everywhere.

Also, this just got published on Food52: "How to Dim Sum Like a Pro." Happy eating!

*   *   *

It’s the end of summer, a time when tomatoes and melons are at their absolute best. True, tomatoes are not constant members of a Chinese cook’s produce bin, but they do show up, especially in Muslim areas, as well as in Cantonese cooking, probably because these love apples go especially well with beef.

I practically lived on tomato beef over crispy noodles during my first year in Taipei, since there was one little Guangdong-style stand on Songjiang Road halfway between my classrooms and the Chinese home where I boarded. The lady there knew exactly what I wanted: a slightly sweet-and-sour sauce, barely cooked wedges of bright red tomatoes, thin and tender slices of seared beef, a scattering of green onions, and a crunchy pillow of thin egg noodles. It was intensely good.

Now's the time for tomatoes
As I started to become more accustomed to the local cuisines, the Taiwanese affection for matching salty with sweet drew my attention. First to hook me was the penchant for sprinkling salt on cold wedges of watermelon. At first this seemed totally unnecessary – after all, you really can’t find a better dessert than ripe fruit served up all on its own – but a few exploratory nibbles showed that a tiny bit of salt emphasized the sweetness and made each mouthful just that more delicious.

Pretty soon I was enjoying things like inspired mixtures of peanuts and cilantro and sugar, which hit all sorts of nerve endings in my mouth, puzzling and intriguing and pleasing and confusing my palate at the same time. And then I discovered sour plum powder, which my Chinese girlfriends liberally dusted on top of crisp guavas and ripe tomatoes.

To be honest, my girls all loved tart flavors much more than sweet – and that’s true even to this day when they can no longer be officially categorized as girls – and so anything that would lend a sour note to a dish was welcomed with open chopsticks. And when a dish or drink was especially puckery and delicious, the usual reaction was a delighted smile with a slightly agonized expression, a happy moan, and the rubbing of one side of the face while they exclaimed, “Ay-ya, that’s good!”

This one is just the flesh
Summer was celebrated in particularly lavish style: luscious tomatoes were seasoned with the sweet-sour-salty plums called huàméi . Dried little taupe nuggets, these are usually used to accompany tea, but also find their way into certain dishes, like these eggs or pork ribs. It’s an almost indescribable flavor, since you also have a fruity layer that somehow glues all of those disparate elements together.

You can cut off the flesh from the pits and then stick little slivers inside of cherry tomatoes before chilling them, or you can even peel the tomatoes, toss them with the sour plum powder, and let them marinate in the fridge overnight. Both are good.

But when you have some amazing tomatoes to work with, sometimes simplest is best. This requires that you first get your hands on Taiwanese style sour plums. Be sure that they are called huamei, as any other kind will taste very different and quite possibly be too sour to eat. (See Sour Plum Infusion for more on that.) If you can find the ones that are already pitted like this photo on the right, even better. If not, just use kitchen shears or a sharp paring knife to trim off the flesh – the pits can be reserved for tea, which is great hot or chilled.
Pitted sour plums

Do note that the flavor of each brand of plums varies wildly. Some are coated with lots of ground herbs, like licorice, while others are incredibly salty or a bit sweet or just mildly sour. So, taste the dried plums and add as much sugar or salt as you think it needs. Use a spice grinder here, rather than a mini food processor, as it gets the job done easily. Pulse the plums up in short bursts, not at full blast, and let the grinder cool down as needed. This will help prevent the sugar in the plums from heating up and gumming up the works.

Make extra sour plum powder, as it keeps well. Then get in touch with your inner Chinese woman and sprinkle it on pineapple, melons, cucumbers... whatever needs a flavor boost.

Note: you can occasionally find this powder ready-made in some Chinese markets, but it tends to be padded out with citric acid and other stuff, as well as red food coloring. So, try it if you like, but compare it with this homemade pinch of heaven. There's no contest.

Tomatoes with sour plum powder
Méizifěn fānqié 梅子粉蕃茄
Serves 4

Around 1/2 cup / 60 g pitted dried sour plums (huamei)
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 pound / 450 g ripe and fully flavored tomatoes of any kind, preferably a mixture of two or more varieties

1. If your dried plums are not pitted, then use kitchen shears or a sharp paring knife to remove the flesh. Place the dried plums in a clean, dry spice grinder and pulse until they are reduced to a fine powder (see headnotes). Add as much sugar and salt as is needed, pulse again, and taste – there should be a nice balance of sweet, salty, and sour, so adjust things as needed. Store the sour plum powder in a dry jar in the pantry.
Ready to go

2. Rinse the tomatoes, pat dry, and trim as needed. If they are cherry or plum tomatoes, no further work is needed. Slice larger fruits up into wedges. Arrange these on a plate or bowl. They can be chilled if you like, but I personally prefer room temperature, which allows their flavors to really bloom. Offer little saucers of the sour plum powder around the tomatoes and sprinkle a tiny bit on top of the fruit. Serve with forks, chopsticks, or long skewers.


Your spice grinder will probably have bits of sour plum gunk stuck on the blades and so forth. Don't soak the machine or wash it, but rather wipe it out with a damp cloth immediately after you've emptied it, then thoroughly air dry the grinder before closing it up.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Dongan chicken from Hunan

In 712, three elderly women ran a restaurant in a small town in southern Hunan. One evening, some merchants came by looking for dinner, but the restaurant was sold out. The owners quickly bought two chickens and decided they’d try something new and quick. 

They briefly poached and boned the birds, and then tossed them in a spicy sauce made with Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies, ginger, vinegar, and rice wine. 

Their customers loved it, and word of the chicken eventually reached the county chief. He came to the restaurant, ordered the dish, found it delicious, and ended up naming it after the county where they lived: Dongan.
Simply luscious

This is one of those carefree dishes you should learn by heart. Poach the chicken in a seasoned broth like this, and then you have the makings for at least two dinners, since the chicken soup is fabulous with fresh mushrooms, a bit of greens, and some green bean noodles to round it out. And if you end up loving Dongan Chicken as much as I do, consider it as a topping for noodle soups, a plate of rice, or even a green salad. (Make extra sauce, too, while you’re at it, as it will take your salad, noodles and rice to new and happy heights.)

A really wonderful thing about this sort of preparation is that you can make this casually over a couple of days. Poach the chicken one day and chill it. Bone it another day, if you’d prefer. Then, whenever you’re up to it, mix together the sauce and toss in the chicken.
The secret? Poached chicken

Incredibly simple. Incredibly good.

Dongan chicken
Dōngān jī 東安雞
Serves 6 to 8

Chicken and poaching liquid:
1 (3 pounds, or so) small fryer
½ teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon rock sugar (a piece about half the size of a walnut)
Boiling water, as needed

Everything else:
3 to 6 small dried chilies, depending upon how hot they are and how hot you like your food
Bone the bird
1½ teaspoons ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns, or 2 teaspoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
¼ cup peanut oil
2 tablespoons ginger, finely julienned
2 tablespoons black vinegar
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ cup poaching liquid (from Step 2)
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cool stock or water
3 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1. Start this recipe a couple of hours — or even a day or two — before you plan to serve it. Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Put the ground Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar in a 2-quart stockpot, add about a cup of the boiling water, and swish this around. Add the chicken, breast side up. Pour in more enough boiling water to cover the chicken with about an inch or two of the water, place it on the stove, and place the pot over high heat. As soon as it boils, reduce the heat so that you have a lively simmer, and let the chicken cook for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until a chopstick inserted into the thickest part of the thigh goes in very easily. Let the chicken sit in the stock, and when it has cooled down to lukewarm, carefully remove the chicken to a rimmed platter and let it cool off until it is very easy to handle. Reserve the poaching liquid in the stockpot.
Necessary fireworks

2. Place another large plate or platter next to the chicken. If the head, neck, and/or feet are still attached, remove them and toss them into the poaching liquid. As you proceed to break down the chicken, you can leave the skin attached to the meat if you wish, or add it to the stockpot, too, along with all of the bones. Cut off the wingtips and back, and put them in the stockpot. Remove the bones from the wings, legs (pull out the tendons), and thighs — leave the meat in chunks as large as possible and place them on the clean plate. Slice the meat crosswise as needed into pieces about 1½ x ½-inch in size. Finally, remove the meat from the rest of the carcass and cut it into the same size as the rest of the chicken. Toss the rest of the bones into the stockpot, too. Bring the stock to a boil and then simmer it uncovered for about an hour; strain and discard the solids. Reserve about ¼ cup of the stock for this recipe, and use the rest of the stock for something else. The recipe can be made ahead of time, in which case chill the chicken and the reserved stock; they will not have to be reheated before proceeding.

3. Break the chilies in half and discard the seeds and stem ends. Crumble or chop the chilies in to smallish pieces. If you’re using whole Sichuan peppercorns, place them on the cutting board and crush them with the side of a cleaver, pressing down on the cleaver and rubbing it a bit into the peppercorns so that they break open.
Hunan comfort food

4. Set a wok over medium-high heat until it barely begins to smoke, add the oil and swirl it around, and then add the ginger and chilies. Quickly stir-fry them for a few seconds before adding the chicken meat to the wok. Gently toss the chicken over the heat for a minute before adding the ground or crushed peppercorns, vinegar, rice wine, and sugar. Continue to gently toss everything together over the heat for about a minute before adding the poaching liquid and salt. Cover the wok and let the flavors combine for about two minutes, by which time most of the stock will have cooked off.

5. Uncover the wok and pour off any excess oil. Taste and add more salt, vinegar, chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, or sugar as needed. Return the wok to medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cornstarch mixture and toss the chicken again until the cornstarch has evenly coated the chicken and is cooked through. Toss in the green onions and sprinkle everything with the sesame oil. Serve immediately.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Bar snacks taken to a whole new level

Bar snacks and tapas are two of China’s great undiscovered culinary marvels. I mean, I could easily subsist and probably even thrive on little more than the amazing little dishes that are meant to be enjoyed with warm rice wine, chilled beer, neat little shots of white liquor, or even a hot pot of tea.

All that is required of these tiny jewels is that they be things you can prepare ahead of time and then either set out cold or wave quickly over the heat before serving. 

The chefs of Shanghai and the rest of the area near the mouth of the Yangtze River seem to have this talent in their blood, and restaurants there are filled with the offerings known as pentoucai, or “basins of food.” This all sounds very exotic, I know, but in actuality this is little more than deli food. Brilliant in conception and execution – I’ll certainly give you that – but deli food nonetheless.

Other parts of China also have vast repertoires that are designed to be savored before meals with a glass or cup of something exceptionally good, too. 

The main ingredients: sea moss & peanuts
Sichuan and Hunan immediately come to mind, as their slicks of chile oil, nubbins of fermented black beans, raw jolts of garlic, and shreds of fresh green onion are meant to wake up the appetite, stimulate the senses, and prime the culinary pump for more good things to come. And yes, it would be a fine thing indeed if I could be allowed the opportunity to eat nothing but these Chinese tapas until the day that I finally had my fill. I imagine I’d die of old age first, but wouldn’t mind being put to the test.

But up around the Yangtze Delta, seasonings get toned down a notch. Instead of fiery oils or numbing peppercorns or nose-tingling aromatics, these bar snacks are seasoned with a more restrained touch that perfectly complements the flavor spectrums of their most classic cuisines.

Shaoxing rice wine, for example, wiggles its way into many things, and sometimes forms the backbone aroma for crystalline aspics that cling to shards of juicy pork or tender chicken. Ginger is usually about the hottest thing on the ingredient list, and it often hums in the background of a stock or gets fried into frizzy threads. Green onions are probably the seasoning of choice, hands down, especially if they are first gently fried to a deep brown, which lends them a nutty edge that’s hard to beat.

Sea moss in its natural habitat
In today’s dish, two other iconic seasonings pop up for some much needed attention: good sea salt and dried sea moss.

The moss really does come from the sea and is not a seaweed, but rather clings to rocks on the shoreline and can be a bit of a pest for boats. The Chinese cleverly learned to turn this into yet one more delicious ingredient by drying it, which makes it look like long, green locks of hair. You can find it in most non-Cantonese Chinese grocery stores, where it usually hides on the same aisle as the dried seaweeds.

It stays fresh a long time if the package isn’t opened, so buy a couple if you come across it, as we have a couple recipes for it in All Under Heaven (only three weeks to go!) and very likely will feature more ideas on this blog, as I adore the stuff. Aside from providing a nice, olive hue to things, the moss tastes gently of the sea. It’s much more subtle than many seaweeds, and frying it gives it a delightfully crisp texture.

The other seasoning I want to talk about is sea salt. Whenever I write a recipe that calls for salt, I always specify sea salt. You can, of course, use kosher salt, but kosher salt is lighter and flakier, so the measurements will be different. Other naturally prepared salts – like gray salt, red salt, and so forth – can also be used, if you prefer; just pay attention to the amount. Always start with a smaller amount and work your way up until the dish is salted just enough. Do NOT use iodized salt, which has a bitter edge and also measures differently – in other words, a teaspoon of sea salt is much less salt than a teaspoon of iodized salt.

Maldon sea salt
My favorite finishing salt is Maldon, which comes in large, fat flakes that are a pleasure to fuss with. I keep a jar next to the stove, and though I measure out the salt into my palm with a tiny spoon, I always give myself the chance to sprinkle them with my fingertips, which for some reason really is quite sensuous.

The only other ingredient here you need to take care with is the peanuts. Buy fresh, raw peanuts, preferably in small amounts from the bins at a busy health food store. These are full of fresh oils (remember, peanut oil has to come from somewhere), and so will go rancid if you let them sit around too long.

Finally, check out this perfect way to make fried peanuts. The secret? Start them in cool oil. Almost everyone else will tell you to heat the oil and then add the nuts, but that makes the exterior cook quickly and even burn before the insides are cooked through. So, give the oil and peanuts the chance to heat up together, which allows the nuts to fry evenly. Just keep an eye on the heat. 

Smaller nuts should be given lower heat, as they will cook through really fast – an overdone peanut is a crying shame, all dry and bitter. Watch the nuts as they fry and regulate the heat. When the peanuts start to open up and smell peanutty, take the wok off of the heat, remove a peanut from the oil, let it cool off for a few seconds, and then take a taste. It will still be soft (they only turn crunchy when they have completely cooled off), but the taste will tell you everything you need to know.
The nuts in cool oil to start

The amounts here are pretty much ballpark. If you have a pound of nuts, go with that. Two pounds? Even better. The sea moss comes in packets of varying sizes, so don’t worry about that, either. More moss will taste fabulous, while less will offer more of a gentle seasoning. Chill the nuts to bring out their flavors and relax in the shade with a bowl of these chased down by a chilled beer. Summer dining definitely has its up sides.

Sea moss peanuts
Táitiáo huāshēng 苔條花生
Makes about 1½ cups

About 12 ounces / 340 g (a heaping 1½ cups) fresh, raw peanuts of any size, preferably with their skins on
1½ cups / 350 ml peanut or vegetable oil (used is all right if it smells fresh)
.85 ounces / 25 g dried sea moss
1 to 1½ teaspoons good sea salt, like Maldon

Calendar pages hard at work
1. Line a medium work bowl with parchment paper. (I use the old sheets from my Chinese calendar and fold them inside out so that the ink doesn’t transfer to the food. It lends a bit of charm to the cooking process and satisfies my cheap frugal Scottish ancestors.) Pour the nuts into a wok and cover them with the oil. Shake the wok around a bit so that all the peanuts are submerged. Set the wok over medium heat and bring the oil to a bubble. Shake the wok now and then to move things around, and keep an eye on the heat, as you want a bit of foam around the nuts, which shows that the moisture is being fried away, but not much browning should be going on before the nuts stop foaming. When the nuts taste cooked but not dry, scoop them out of the oil with a Chinese spider or slotted spoon and let them drain in the work bowl. Keep the oil in the wok, but remove it from the heat.

2. While the nuts are slowly frying, firmly but gently shake the hank of sea moss over the sink to get rid of any sand. Place the sea moss in a paper bag and then work it apart into smaller strands. Corralling the moss this way keeps bits from zinging around the kitchen. Set the wok over medium heat and add the moss. Use chopsticks to flip it over as it cooks. When it is uniformly brittle, shake any crumbs out of the paper bag and stuff the fried moss in there, as the paper will absorb most of the oil. Shake the bag around to dislodge the oil and cool off the sea moss. When it is easier to handle, crush it through the bag into shards.
The moss in a bag

3. Remove the paper from the work bowl and shake all of the sea moss into the peanuts. Add the salt and toss. Take a couple of generous tastes and add more salt, if you like. Store this in the refrigerator. The cold will make the nuts and moss crunchier, and thus tastier. Also, it prevents you from snacking on the bowl every time you pass by.

This dish will stay fresh a long time, I assume. Try it with Congee and a fried egg for breakfast, sprinkled over noodles instead of the usual fried peanuts, and so forth. This is one very versatile little friend to have hanging around.

If you are allergic to peanuts, use fresh almonds. (Thanks, Cynthia, for reminding me!)