Monday, December 15, 2014

How to fry nuts perfectly

Any visit to Beijing - or to any good Beijing restaurant worth its salt, for that matter - will most likely lead to an encounter with something particularly addictive: aged vinegar peanuts. I've modified the traditional recipe a bit and am really happy with the result. A bowl of these beauties pretty much has everything going for it: it's crunchy, sweet, piquant, fresh, and salty all at the same time. 

And really, what is not to love? The nuts are gently fried to a perfect state of crispness, tossed with bright cubes of green onion, onion, and cucumbers, and finally bathed in a sweetened vinegar. Simplicity incarnate.

What I've done here is take the traditional recipe a couple of steps further. The onions and cukes are lightly salted to remove any moisture that could potentially threaten the absolute state of crunchitude that the peanuts possess. Second, red onions are used instead of white or yellow to add a bit of color to the scheme. (All of you chili heads out there can toss in some chopped fresh red chilies, of course, and neither garlic nor cilantro would be out of place here for those who love them.) Third, the vinegar is first simmered with the sugar and salt so that their graininess is dissolved, the tastes are perfectly balanced, and the sauce is given a chance to thicken so that it robes each nut with a gentle shellac.

Start the nuts in cold oil
You can use almonds instead of peanuts as I have done, just be sure that whatever nuts you use still have their skins on. The skin is desirable because it will wrinkle up as it fries, giving the nut the appearance of what is know as “tiger skin,” or hǔpí 虎皮, that delights the eye and contrasts so well with the other ingredients. The ridges and valleys on the skin will also act as tiny scoops to grab onto the sauce and hold it while you transport the glistening nut to your happy maw. What causes the sheath of a humble nut to turn into tiger skin is the expansion of the nut as it slowly fries, puffs up as the moisture cooks away, and then shrivels back down, leaving the skin to try to cover up a much smaller body. 

The secret to this dish is this: the nuts need to fry very slowly and they must be started in cool oil. The main mistake that folks make when frying nuts is that they start by heating the oil and then tossing in the raw nuts. But that doesn't allow the inside of the nut to fully cook before the exterior is burned, and what you do not want to have under any circumstances are burned nuts. If that happens, toss them out and start all over. So, use cool oil here, add the nuts to the oil before you turn on the heat, and then moderate the heat so that the nuts bubble merrily away without browning too quickly.

Chinese cuisine is full of little tips like that, things that seem so obvious once you parse them out, but ones that make all the difference in the world. Take this story for example...

Slowly fry the nuts
The story goes that a Chinese opera performer had problem: every time he played a general on stage and swung his spear, it would hit the fan of flags arrayed across his back. The performer tried and tried to figure out how to do this properly, but he never failed to whack at least one of the flags. It ruined his performances, and his audiences were losing patience. Desperate, he begged a famous opera master to reveal to him how he managed to swing his spear so effortlessly and always miss the flags. The star smiled and said that younger man would have to become his disciple, to wine and dine his new master and convincingly show his fealty before the request could be granted. 

The younger man leaped at this rare opportunity. He kowtowed to his new master with great ceremony and showered him with feasts and gifts, trying in every way to curry his favor. One day, at the end of a seemingly endless series of banquets, the younger man finally couldn’t wait any more. He pleaded with the master to at last show him his secret. 

The master picked his teeth for a while, and then finally nodded and removed the toothpick from his mouth. “Watch,” he ordered. He held the toothpick straight out from his belly like the haft of a spear, and then swung it slowly up around his face and back down to his belly, never taking his eyes off the tip of the toothpick. “That’s it?” the young man exclaimed, “just watch the tip?”

Every Chinese person (and just about everyone else) I know loves peanuts.  There’s a lot of Chinese recipes that call for fried or roasted peanuts, too, so I’ve tried just about everything to make the perfect peanut, and it wasn’t until I figured out this method that I hit the jackpot. It’s so easy that it seems almost silly to focus a recipe around it, but just as in the foregoing story, sometimes the magic is in the details.

Aged vinegar fried peanuts 
Lǎocù huāshēngmǐ 
Thickened sauce
Makes about 3 cups

1 cup tasty dark vinegar (everyday balsamic recommended)
6 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt
¼ medium red onion, chopped (½ cup)
2 Persian or Japanese cucumbers, trimmed and chopped (1 cup)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 pound fresh, raw peanuts or almonds in their skins
3 cups (or so) vegetable or peanut oil; used is all right as long as it smells fresh
2 green onions, trimmed and chopped (½ cup)
A small bunch of cilantro, chopped, optional

1 clove garlic, finely chopped, optional
1 fresh red chili, finely chopped, optional

1. Start by making the vinegar sauce: Bring the vinegar, sugar, and salt to a boil in a small saucepan and then reduce the heat to medium. Simmer the vinegar until it has reduced a bit and has thickened; the vinegar will look heavier at this point and will drip more slowly off of a spoon or rubber spatula. It will thicken up more as it cools down.

2. Place the onion and cucumbers in a sieve or colander, sprinkle them with the other teaspoon of salt, shake them all around, and let the veggies sweat while you prepare the rest of the dish.

3. Pour the oil in your wok and add the nuts to the oil. Warm up the oil and nuts over medium-high heat until the oil begins to bubble, and then lower the heat to medium. Stir the nuts often while they cook. You want to maintain a high enough heat that a white foam forms around the nuts, but not so hot that the nuts burn. Stir and cook until the nuts are toasted and golden brown. Taste one to make sure: it should taste nice and toasty. At this point the nuts are done, even if they are not crunchy, because that won't happen until they cool down. Use a slotted spoon or Chinese spider to scoop the nuts out of the hot oil into a work bowl lined with a couple of paper towels. Shake the nuts around in the bowl so that most of the oil gets sponged up by the towels, as this will allow the vinegar to cling to the nuts instead of sliding off. 
Makes me long for Beijing

4. When the nuts have cooled down, squeeze any liquid out of the onions and cucumbers and add them to the nuts. Add whatever other condiments you want, like cilantro, chili, and/or garlic, as well as however much of the vinegar sauce you like. Toss them all together and serve.

5. If you plan to serve this a lot later, keep the peanuts, sauce, and veggies separate so that they don't get all soggy. If you are only serving a couple of people, you can toss together the amount you want and refrigerate the rest.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Wuxi's gift to the world: incredible ribs

Welcome to the most divine way to cook ribs: Wuxi Spareribs. Wuxi straddles famous Lake Tai (Taihu) just west of Suzhou and is located right below the Yangtze River. 

It's deservedly renowned for many cultural things, but it's been hard for any of its accomplished sons or daughters to even begin to hold a candle to the fame that these ribs have brought. One taste and you'll understand just why that is.

My love affair with Wuxi Spareribs is a long and passionate one. It started when I worked at the museum in Taiwan and would tag along to the endless array of delectable banquets the director would host for foreign guests. Whenever we ended up at one of Taipei’s many fancy Jiangsu-style restaurants, I’d practically hold my breath, hoping and praying that these would be served, and pacing myself so that I didn’t fill up on any of the dishes that preceded the meat courses. If no Wuxi Spareribs appeared, ah well, there was always next time, and there would still be plenty of other things to enjoy before the banquet was over.   

But if and when those spareribs did appear, I was ready with a ravenous, barely-whetted appetite. I mean, I’d be nice and let everyone else have a crack at them, but by then the speed and hunger of the other diners were usually winding down, and so I could graciously ply the other diners with the plate of glistening spareribs in the happy knowledge that they’d be refused with regretful sighs.   

I've tried a number of different recipes for Wuxi Spareribs, and nothing comes close to this one. Many call for the ribs to be boiled before they're braised in the signature dark, spice-infused sauce. But that method doesn’t give the ribs a chance to fully develop either their color or their flavor. No, you have to deep-fry these until they’re a golden brown, and only then are they bathed in that luscious sauce and cooked to perfect tenderness.

Serve these with a pile of flash-fried pea sprouts, steamed rice, and lots of napkins. Invite others, if you are so inclined. 

Wuxi spareribs
Wúxí páigu 無錫排骨
Serves 1 to 4

1 side of pork spareribs (about 2 to 2½ pounds) cut lengthwise in half, if possible (get the best quality pork you can find -- it really shows here)
½ cup good quality, regular soy sauce (not dark soy sauce)
Peanut oil for frying
    6 stalks green onion, smashed with the side of a cleaver and cut into 1-inch lengths
    4 finger-sized pieces of fresh ginger, smashed with the side of a cleaver
    6 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
    4 star anise
    2 cinnamon sticks
    3 to 4 cups boiling filtered water (or as needed)
    4 pieces rock sugar the size of walnuts, or 5 tablespoons sugar (rock sugar highly recommended here)
    1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
    Toasted sesame oil, optional
      Slice between the bones
      1. Have your butcher cut the ribs in half so that you're left with two long strips of riblets and then cut between the bones and through the cartilage at the base of the bones, or, if you don’t have an accommodating butcher, consider finding another place to buy good pork. 

      2. Place the riblets in a large bowl with the soy sauce, toss well, and marinate them for 20 to 30 minutes, tossing them now and again while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. The ribs will absorb lots of the soy sauce, which you soon will find is a very good thing.

      3. Heat the peanut oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Lift about half of the ribs out of the marinade (reserve this soy sauce for later), shake off any excess, and cautiously add them to the hot oil - it will splatter like crazy when you first put them in the hot oil, so direct the wok away from you and have a spatter screen or cover ready to protect yourself. Deep fry the ribs until they're a dark brown. They can almost be black in some areas along the edges where the soy sauce has caramelized; this is something extremely good, as these areas will turn into chewy, sticky morsels later on. Remove the fried ribs to a plate, heat the oil back up again, and add the rest of the meat. 

      4. When all the ribs are brown, pour off all but a tablespoon or two of the oil. Reheat the wok, add the onions and ginger, and stir-fry them for about a minute to release their flavors. Pour in the soy sauce used as a marinade, as well as the rice wine, star anise, cinnamon, and boiling water. Bring the sauce to a boil and add the ribs, and top it off with a bit more water if necessary to cover the ribs. Bring the sauce to a boil again and then lower to a gentle simmer. Cook the ribs covered for about 90 minutes until the meatiest areas can be easily pierced with a chopstick, and then add the sugar and dark soy sauce. Remove the cover and continue to braise the ribs until they are meltingly tender. (Don't add any more water during the braising, as you want the sauce to thicken and penetrate the meat.)

      Fried & ready to braise
      5. If the meat on the ribs doesn't threaten to fall off the bones, raise the heat under the wok to high in order to boil down the sauce to a lovely dark syrup; if the meat is unable to withstand any more abuse, remove the ribs to a platter with a slotted spoon and tongs before boiling down the sauce. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning if you want, but that probably won't be necessary. 

      6. Arrange the ribs in a welcoming manner on a serving platter, and be sure to claim any imperfect pieces for yourself. Strain the thick sauce to remove all the seasonings and then pour it over the ribs. You can sprinkle some sesame oil into the sauce to provide a bit more gloss, if you like, but don't add more than just a few drops, as this could overwhelm the flavors. Serve immediately while they're hot, wait a bit and serve them a room temperature, or cool them down and store for later; these freeze very well and can be reheated by steaming. 

      This recipe can be multiplied easily; I usually make at least twice this amount so that I can have them ready in the freezer for when either guests blow in or I get a major jones for these divine ribs.

      Monday, December 1, 2014

      Yunnan's delicious Burmese and Thai links

      Crispy bean sauce over steamed cod is such a popular dish in Taiwan that many think that it's Taiwanese. 

      But there's really nothing in this sauce that even suggests that it was born somewhere in Taiwan, as the flavors speak of the province called South of the Clouds, or Yunnan. (By the way, has there ever been a prettier place name?)

      Located in south-central China below Sichuan and just to the north of the many Southeast Asian chili cultures - Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam - Yunnan may be excused if its dishes tend toward the red end of the spectrum.

      The foods here are highly flavored, but deliciously so.  And although chili here is a mainstay, the local milder dishes, like silky Steampot Chicken, are nothing short of incredible, and you can also find tropical hints in the funky shrimp sauces that deepen the flavors of various vegetable and meat dishes. 

      The first place I ever tried crispy bean sauce, in fact, was in Taiwan at a terrific restaurant called Yunnan Renheyuan. It was such an authentic Yunnan-style that it even served fried dried milk "fans" (rushan), which doesn't sound all that great in English, but in fact tastes mildly cheesy and is decidedly crunchy. In fact, I think that is the only crunchy milk that I've ever eaten, and I long for the day that this is a common supermarket item, too.

      Jarred and dried dousu
      Today, though, the focus is on Yunnan's crispy bean sauce. The basic material for this are the smashed, dried, salted beans that are sold as dousu, or "crispy beans." These are very close cousins to the dried discs of fermented beans sold as tua nao in Burma, as well as in northern Thailand in the Chiang Mai area. In fact, many of the ingredients and seasonings around the entire area shows an amazing degree of interconnectedness courtesy of the mountains' indigenous peoples. 

      When I lived in Taiwan, I could occasionally buy them formed into hard clusters about the size of tennis balls, and except for the times when I hauled back a stash to the States, I never could find them here no matter how I tried, and any restaurant that served Crispy Bean Sauce over Steamed Cod charged a ridiculous amount of money for a small portion. I have to admit, though, that many was the time that I broke down and ordered this extravagance out of pure desire and more than a little bit of homesickness for Taiwan's incredible restaurant food. 

      Crush the beans
      All that changed recently. Nowadays you can often find the dried beans already crushed into a powder, and there is even a bottled version that only asks you to fry it up before serving. It's pretty good, so try it if you can find it. But whenever possible, I like to make the sauce myself, as I prefer to add more chili and ginger and garlic (and less oil) than the bottled variety. You too should feel free to adjust the flavorings to fit your tastes, as this is a very forgiving sauce and will taste good no matter what you do, as long as you don't burn it.

      The most common way of serving this sauce is over steamed cod, for the soft blandness of the fish is a nice counterpoint to the assertive sauce. But don't let that stop you if you love the sauce but don't want to eat fish, for this is downright terrific over a plain omelet or steamed soft bean curd.

      For the omelet, simply cook four beaten eggs into a regular old omelet (preferably round), and then pour half of the sauce over the eggs. For the bean curd, cut it into large cubes and either steam or microwave it until it is heated through; pour off as much water as you can before piling half of the sauce on top.

      This recipe makes a lot of sauce, but it's easy to scoop out half just after you have added the ground beans and then save this portion for later; besides, there still will be plenty to adorn the fish. Folks in my family tend to strong-arm each other while scooping up as much of the sauce as they can on their rice, leaving the fish as an afterthought, which is a very good reason to have lots more sauce than fish.
      Fry the aromatic

      Crispy bean sauce over steamed cod 
      Dòusū xuěyú 
      Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal

      24 ounces cod fillets or steaks, skin removed
      1 teaspoon salt
      1 tablespoon rice wine
      Sauce and garnish:
      7 ounces (200 grams) dried crispy soybeans (dousu, see headnotes)
      ¾ cup vegetable or peanut oil
      1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
      1 tablespoon coarsely ground dried chilies, or to taste
      2 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped, optional
      2 tablespoon sugar
      2 green onions, chopped 

      1. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Place it on a heatproof plate and rub it all over with the salt, and then sprinkle the wine over the fish; this will help to season the fish and also remove excess moisture. Allow the fish to marinate for 10 to 20 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Steam the fish while you prepare the sauce, allowing 10 to 20 minutes for the fish to cook, depending upon the thickness of the fish and how hot your steamer is.

      Fry the fermented beans to a crisp
      2. Crush the dried crispy soybeans by first making a small slit in the plastic bag so that the vacuum is released, and then break up the soybean brick into smaller parts. Then, use the handle of your cleaver to crush the soybeans into a powder; it is all right if there are clumps left, as these will fall apart as they are fried.

      3. About 10 minutes before you wish to serve this dish, put the oil in a cold wok and add the ginger and chili. Slowly heat the oil over medium heat so that the aromatics can season the oil without burning. As soon as the ginger has fried to a pale tan and the chili is not yet browned, add the dried crispy soybeans and garlic. (If you want, remove half of the sauce as soon as the beans absorb the oil and set it aside for another day; it will keep will refrigerated in a covered jar.)

      4. Raise the heat to medium-high and fry everything until the beans are brown and crispy. Sprinkle the sugar over the beans and stir in. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Pour the hot sauce over the fish, which should cause a delectable popping sound. Sprinkle the green onions over the sauce and serve immediately with a spoon so that the sauce can be scooped up. Have lots of hot steamed rice ready, as the sauce will be the star of the show.

      Monday, November 24, 2014

      A Thanksgiving gift to you: my secret recipe for seasoned sweet soy sauce

      Dear Readers,

      It is almost time for the best holiday of the year: Thanksgiving. And so, I just want to say that you are one of the things I am most grateful for. I couldn't write about the best cuisines in the world without you. Literally. And these Chinese food adventures wouldn't have been turned into a cookbook without you, either.

      Also, I wanted to let you know that McSweeney's has delayed publication of ALL UNDER HEAVEN until September 2015. They are restructuring as they turn the company into a nonprofit, and so things have had to be shifted around a bit. In spite of that, I’m terribly grateful to the fine folks at McSweeney’s, too.

      This delay has also meant that things are sort of backed up in the recipe testing department, so if you are wondering when that next recipe is coming down the pipeline, I can tell you that this will be taken care of soon, too. Your patience and understanding are two other good reasons for saying thank you.

      So please, accept this gift of one of my all-time favorite, most secret, and intensely delicious inventions: Seasoned Sweet Soy Sauce.

      Caramelized sugar
      This is something that is beloved in Yunnan, and I think that is because of all the indigenous people there. If you love Southeast Asian cuisines, this sauce might even seem rather familiar. The contributions of China's ethnic minorities to the country's majestic cultural tapestry are just now beginning to find appreciation among culinary people, and their way with fermented things is astoundingly good. (We will look at another delicious example next week.)

      You can buy this in most Chinese markets, but why bother, when the homemade version is so much tastier? It’s also a snap to make, and you will find yourself using again and again as a topping for braised meats and bean curd, as a quick fix for noodles, and just about anyplace else that could benefit from a touch of truly gorgeous flavor.

      Homemade sweet soy sauce is much stronger and saltier than the store-bought kind, so adjust the amounts as needed. A lot of this will depend upon the kind of soy sauce you use. I like Kimlan’s regular soy sauce here. And then again, you can always dilute it as desired with hot water at the end.

      The secrets to this amazing creation? Caramelized sugar, fresh aromatics, and warm spices. Your kitchen will smell incredible and even downright seductive.

      Sweet soy sauce
      Tiánjiàngyóu 甜醬油
      Makes about 2 cups

      1½ cups sugar
      ¾ cup water, divided
      1 (500 ml.) bottle regular soy sauce
      1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
      Cook til thick
      2 slices licorice root
      2 whole star anise
      2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
      5 thin slices ginger
      Boiling water, as needed

      1. Put the sugar in a medium, heavy saucepan, preferably stainless steel so that the caramelization process can be seen clearly. Moisten the sugar with ¼ cup water and place the pan on high heat until the sugar caramelizes. Remove the pan from the heat and wait a minute for it to cool down slightly. While directing the pan away from you, pour the rest of the water into the caramelized sugar — it will sizzle and boil, so keep your face and arms out of the splash zone.

      2. As soon as the boiling has subsided, return the pan to high heat. Add the rest of the ingredients up through the ginger, and bring the liquid to a boil, stirring often so that the now hardened caramel melts into the sauce. Stir the sauce occasionally as it cooks, and when it starts to go from large bubbles to a fine foam, do not leave the stove, as it might boil over. Continue to boil the sauce until it has reduced to a molasses-like consistency, about 20 to 25 minutes.
      Bottled heaven

      3. Strain the sweet soy sauce into a measuring cup and add boiling water, as needed, to bring the sauce to 2¾ cups. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cool the sauce completely and pour it into a bottle. Refrigerate it if you not use it often, or else keep it near your stove in a cool spot.