Monday, December 3, 2018

Long bean fish nests

One of the most beautiful of all Hakka-style dishes, for some strange reason this also happens to be one of the least well known. But that is certain to change once you realize that these also taste wonderful. 

In fact, they are so unusual and delicious that long bean fish nests will cement your reputation as a great Hakka cook.

The filling is simply homemade fish balls. But these are unlike any commercial fish balls you’ve ever eaten because they are light and fluffy, and yet have a bouncy enough texture to stand up to the long beans. 

Plus, I’ve figured out a way to make these in a food processor, which turns a labor of love into an easy feat.

Long beans are best through late summer and early winter here in California, around the same time that string beans are in season.

Look for thinnish beans, which will be firm and supple. Older beans have pithy insides, and they will often offer you fresh cowpeas inside, which are delicious too, but not what you want here. Select beans that look and feel perfect, as they are the stars of this particular show.

Long bean fish nests
Dòujiăo yúròujuăn  豆角魚肉圈
Hakka cuisine
Serves 6

12 tender long beans (also called snake beans, foot-long beans, etc.)
Boiling water, as needed
1 teaspoon fine sea salt

12 ounces | 300 g any variety of firm white-fleshed fish filets you like, defrosted if frozen
3 fresh or plumped-up dried black mushrooms
1 piece (about 1inch | 2 cm wide) aged tangerine peel
Boiling water

2 teaspoons ice water
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper
2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
Potato starch or cornstarch, as needed
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying

1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

3 fresh or plumped-up dried black mushrooms
½ cup | 125 ml rice wine or strained mushroom-soaking liquid
½ cup | 125 ml water
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
Finely chopped cilantro or scallion greens for garnish

1. Trim off the stem ends of the long beans. Fill a wide pan with the boiling water and sprinkle in the salt. Add the long beans and blanch them only until they turn bright green. Empty the pan into a colander set in the sink. Rinse the beans to cool them off, as this will stop them from cooking any further. Drain the beans and pat dry.

2. Wind each bean around itself into a 2-inch | 5-cm wide nest as shown in the photos to the right, and tuck the ends inside to secure them. This is much easier than it sounds.

3. Set the fish on a couple of layers of paper towel to absorb excess moisture while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Remove the mushroom stems and chop the caps finely. If you are using dried mushrooms, reserve the mushrooms’ soaking liquid for the sauce. Place the tangerine peel in a bowl and cover with boiling water. After at least 10 minutes, chop the softened peel into a fine mince.

4. Remove any bones still hiding in the fish by pulling them out with heavy tweezers or needle-nose pliers. Cut the fish into small pieces and place in a food processor with the tangerine peel. Whiz the fish until it clumps up into a pasty ball. Add the ice water and salt to the fish paste and pulse it a bit more. Pulse in the mushrooms, sugar, pepper, and scallions. You should end up with a firm, bouncy, light green paste.

5. Wet your hands and divide the fish paste into 12 balls. Stuff a ball into the center of each nest. Put a couple tablespoons of the potato or corn starch in a bowl and dip the fishy parts in the starch to coat them.

6. Set a frying pan over medium heat and drizzle in a few tablespoons of oil. When the oil is hot, slide in the filled nests. Fry them on each side until golden and then remove
to a shallow serving bowl. Pour off the oil and wipe the pan with a paper towel.

7. Make the sauce by heating the sesame oil and ginger together until they smell wonderful, then add the sliced mushrooms and fry until the mushrooms are golden. Pour in the rice wine or mushroom-soaking liquid and the soy sauce. Add the nests, cover, and
cook until most of the sauce has been absorbed, which will just take a few minutes. Plate the nests. Sprinkle them with the cilantro or scallions, and serve hot.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Chicken livers and scallions chez Huang

This dish blew my brother-in-law away years and years ago. It even got me an offer to cook at his hotel. I didn’t take him up on it, but still. It’s that good.

Most dishes that feature stir-fried liver are going to be all about technique, and this is no different. You will, of course, start out by getting yourself some really quality chicken livers, preferably free-range and organic. The reason? Chemicals linger in an animal’s liver, and so you want to dine on something healthy.

Over the years I’ve developed a great technique to flush out anything that might linger in even the happiest chickens on earth because no matter what lengths that farmer may have gone to, you are still going to have to deal with their blood and bile.

So, what you do is cut them into pieces not much more than ¾ inch or 1.5 cm all around. This opens up the livers for the cleaning process, and it also ensures that you will be able to quickly fry them without drying them out. Second, you marinate the rinsed livers in mild rice wine, which leaches out any impurities while suffusing them with flavor.

My secret
These are stunningly good as a simple main dish, but any leftovers are also excellent on toast the next day, sort of like Chinese pâté. You might find yourself making a double batch just because of this…

Chicken livers and scallions chez Huang
Huángjiā cōngbào jīgān 黃家蔥爆雞肝
Serves 4 as an entrée, 2 as a main dish

Around 12 ounces | 300 g fresh or defrosted chicken livers (see headnotes)
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)

Add the cornstarch
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
¼ cup | 1 ounce cornstarch

The rest:
½ cup | 125 ml fresh peanut or vegetable oil, plus more as needed
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch | 5 cm lengths, whites and greens in separate piles
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
Toasted scallion whites

1. Use cool tap water to rinse off the livers in a colander and pat dry. Remove any tough membranes, clotted blood, or mushy bits. Cut the livers into pieces approximately ¾ inch | 1.5 cm pieces all around. Put these in a small work bowl and cover with the rice wine. Marinate for at least half an hour and up to a day. Rinse the livers again with cool water and drain in the colander.

2. Place the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and garlic in a small work bowl. Gently toss in the livers and cornstarch so that no lumps of cornstarch are visible.

Frying up the livers
3. Have a slotted spoon ready to do your stir-frying, as well as a serving dish. Set a wok over medium-high heat and add ½ cup | 60 ml oil. As soon as the oil begins to smoke, add the scallion whites and stir-fry them until they are slightly toasted. Remove them to the serving dish. Fry about a third of the livers and sauce at a time over medium-high heat. Shake the wok to loosen them, and then flip them over. As soon as no more blood appears on their surface and the outsides are a dark brown (but the insides are still pink), remove them to the serving dish. Repeat with the rest of the livers and sauce, adding small drizzles of oil as needed.

4. Pour out any extra oil from the wok and add the scallion greens. Stir over medium-high heat until they are barely wilted. Toss in the scallion whites and fried livers. Fry these very quickly, as you just want to get them to know each other without overcooking them. Sprinkle the tablespoon of soy sauce over the livers to give their surfaces a final dash of flavor, fry them for only a couple of seconds more, and then serve.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Uptown Taiwanese omelet rice chez Huang

Omelet rice is a Taiwanese staple that came to the island via Japan. It is so luscious and simple, and such a balanced meal, that it's little wonder danbaofan has become everyone's favorite.

Normally this is made with something like pork, char siu (roast pork), or sweet Cantonese sausages (lop chong). Nothing wrong with that.

However, I like to play around with it, and the results depend upon what’s hanging around in the refrigerator. After all, this is simply glorified fried rice, and so glorify it I do.

Browning the sausage
I was talking with my friend Marc about this the other day, and we exchanged notes. A chef he knows uses goat sausage and fish sauce in his version of danbaofan, so that got me thinking. Yes, I had just the thing for another, new version of this classic.

And it turns out that Merguez sausages are lovely in here, their Moroccan spices and gentle smokiness lending a savory perfume and making this even more sublime. I’ve added asparagus for good measure. Plus that fish sauce, which puts all the flavors in perspective. 

In Taiwan you’d maybe add shrimp and/or peas. Obviously, this recipe is designed to be monkeyed with, so go crazy.

Walnuts & brown rice add nuttiness
Uptown Taiwanese omelet rice chez Huang
Huángjiā dànbāofàn 黃家蛋包飯
Taiwan cuisine with a twist
Serves 2 to 4

2 Merguez sausages (around 5 ounces | 140 g)
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup | 50 g coarsely chopped walnuts
2 cups | 350 g cooked short-grain brown rice, cooled
½ bunch | 200 g asparagus, trimmed and chopped
¼ cup or so fish sauce
1 tablespoon catsup
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Lots of green onion for vegetal perfume

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
Catsup for garnish

1. Remove the skins from the sausages and chop very coarsely. Set a wok over medium heat and fry the sausages without adding any oil. When the sausage starts to brown, toss in the walnuts. As soon as the walnuts begin to brown, scoop the meat and walnuts up to one side and add the oil and then the cold rice.

The omelet wrapper
2. Stir-fry the rice to lighten it up, and once it too starts to turn golden, mix in the sausage and walnuts, as well as the asparagus. Toss these until things are beginning to smell toasty, and then add a couple tablespoons of fish sauce, the catsup, and black pepper to taste. Toss some more and taste, then add more fish sauce if needed. Scoop the rice out onto as many plates as you need (2 to 4 is normal, or you can make one big rice omelet as an entrée).

3. Set the wok back over medium heat. You will make one thin omelet to cover each serving, so drizzle a bit of oil into the wok and a portion of the eggs. Lightly cook the egg on one side only. When it is set in the middle but still slightly damp, overturn it onto a serving of the fried rice. Repeat until all the eggs have been fried and the rice covered. Decorate with a stripe of catsup and serve. Eat with a big spoon.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Spring roll lasagna chez Huang

My mother used to make lasagna with dried noodles, which she would carefully boil until al dente before layering them into the pan with an assortment of fillings. And it was good.

Then someone said you didn’t need to boil the noodles first, that the sauce in the pan would cook them perfectly. And they were right. Those were even better.

Then fresh pasta came along and turned lasagna a couple of degrees more divine because of the lush texture that only freshly made noodles can provide.

And then I wanted lasagna one day, really bad, and didn’t have either dried or fresh lasagna noodles, and didn’t really want to go to the trouble of making homemade pasta. Yes, it’s definitely worth the trouble. But once in a while you just have to let laziness win, for sometimes - just sometimes - laziness leads to delicious things because lazy people are inventors. (That’s my excuse, anyway.)
Frozen (L) and fresh (R)

So I started rooting around. The pantry yielded zip by way of alternatives, but wait a minute, there in the back of the freezer was a package of spring rolls. And what are spring rolls but really thin egg pasta? I did some hasty calculations, realized it would work, and got everything ready.

If you have homemade marinara sauce ready, go with that for sure. But I write mainly about China’s foods for my job, so I rarely go to that bother. Instead, I generally have jars of Paul Newman or something sitting around for whenever spaghetti sauce is needed.

And so you see, the point of this exercise is to use whatever is available. If you don’t have ricotta cheese, try crème fraîche or drained cottage cheese. No mozzarella? Use some other mild cheese that looks good to you. Not a meat eater? No problem: sub in sautéed mushrooms.

Think of lasagna as a way to effortlessly clean out the refrigerator and pantry. But always, always have those spring rolls ready in the freezer. Try this and you’ll see what I mean.

Whereas some lasagnas can come across as leaden or overly starchy, this one is light and airy. That thin pasta absorbs the marinara as it cooks, turning into gentle wisps that glide between whatever filling strikes your fancy. This is also a great way to prepare ahead on the weekend, since it can easily be frozen and reheated. This is a winner.

Spring roll lasagna chez Huang
Huángjiā kăo qiāncéngmiàn 黃家烤千層麵
Italian via a short detour in China
Sausage & onions
Serves 6 to 8

1 (11 ounce | 312 g, or so) package frozen spring rolls, Wei Chuan brand recommended (see Tips)
Spray oil
1 bunch fresh spinach
2 (28 ounce | 737 g or so) jars of prepared marinara sauce, whatever flavor and brand you prefer
12 ounces | 340 g Italian sausages of any flavor or brand, crumbled or thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, chopped
3 hardboiled eggs, sliced
1½ cups | 400 g ricotta cheese, whole milk preferred
80 ounces | 225 g whole-milk mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
1 cup | 80 g coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

Ricotta, mozzarella, & eggs
1. Set the unopened package of spring rolls on the counter to gently defrost while you prepare everything. Line an 11-cup | 2-liter pan with parchment paper or foil, extending the paper or foil up the sides by about 1 inch | 2 cm, as this will give you even more room for the lasagna. Spray the paper or foil with oil and set the pan on a baking sheet. Arrange a rack in the center of your oven and set it to 400°F | 200°C.

2. Cut off the ends of the spinach and soak it in warm water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, as this will help loosen any soil. Swish it around in the water, changing the water as needed, until absolutely every grain of grit has been dislodged. Shake the spinach dry, shred it thinly, and microwave big handfuls of it at a time in a heatproof bowl for 1 minutes. Squeeze the liquid out of the spinach and set it in a work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the spinach.

3. Set a pan over medium heat and fry the sausage until most of the fat has been rendered. Drain off the fat, add the olive oil and onions, and fry these until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and continue to fry until the sausage is borderline crispy.

Scrunched up wrappers
4. Spread a thin layer of the marinara sauce in the pan. Place 2 spring roll sheets on top of the marinara sauce, scrunching them up a bit to make them fit so that they do not overlap. Spread another layer of marinara sauce on the sheets and add some of the meat and onion mixture, then a layer of spring rolls, then marinara sauce, then eggs, then spring rolls, then marinara sauce, then ricotta cheese, then spring rolls, then marinara sauce, then spinach and mozzarella cheese, then spring rolls… in other words, just keep layering things into the pan in whatever order you like. The only thing you need to do, really, is top the spring rolls with marinara sauce, as this turns the noodles soft and silky. You probably will have 25 spring roll sheets in all, so make the top layer out of 3 scrunched-up sheets topped with marinara sauce, and then sprinkle the Parmesan over the top. You probably won’t use all of the marinara sauce, so don’t push it. Make sure all of the spring rolls are carefully dabbed with the sauce, as otherwise those bits will turn hard and inedible.

5. Bake the lasagna uncovered on the baking sheet for 35 to 40 minutes, at which point the top will be browned and the sauce will be bubbling around the edges. Rest the lasagna for 15 to 20 minutes to give the pasta time to absorb the sauce, for this will make cutting and serving it a whole lot less sloppy. Cut the lasagna into squares as desired. Leftovers can be refrigerated and heated up in the microwave. You can also make this ahead of time and bake it for about 30 minutes, then cool it and freeze the lasagna. To reheat the lasagna, defrost it overnight in the refrigerator, and then cook as directed above for another 15 minutes or so, until hot all the way through.
Marco Polo lasagna


Spring roll wrappers and egg roll wrappers are pretty much the same thing, with the egg roll ones generally a little bit thicker. Use whatever you like.

I recommend frozen over fresh ones since the latter can go bad, and you rarely have an opportunity to notice that until you open it up, or at least that has been my experience. Plus, frozen spring roll wrappers are ready whenever you need them. Hurray for that.