Monday, January 26, 2015

Sesame noodles. Seriously yum.

I have adored this simple street food ever since I took my first bite at a little stand on Nanhai Road, just a block or so away from work. It was a very simple affair — just fresh noodles tossed with little more than toasted sesame paste, plus a dash of black vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce — but I always luxuriated over this quiet, solitary lunch.

Over the years I have messed around with this quite a bit, as I found it to be another one of those basic templates that ought to be tinkered with until you find your sweet spot. Peanut butter found its way into the mix to provide another layer of nutty creaminess and more complexity to the flavors. Garlic soon lent its fragrance, as did homemade chili oil with lots of goop, which can make this taste very similar to Sichuan’s Dan Dan Noodles (dāndānmiàn 擔擔麵). Like stone soup, this just gets better as more delicious things get added.
Heat up the nutty sauce

Sesame noodles
Májiàng miàn 麻醬麵
Taiwan Military Families and Beijing
Serves 4

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, or 2 tablespoons chili oil plus goop
2 tablespoons toasted sesame paste
2 tablespoons peanut butter, crunchy or smooth
1 or more cloves garlic (I like 2), finely chopped
1 green onion, the white and greens finely chopped and in separate piles
1½ tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark vinegar
1 teaspoons sugar
Boiling water, as needed
8 ounces dried wheat noodles of any kind

1. First make the sauce: In a wok, mix together the sesame oil (or chili oil and goop), sesame paste, peanut butter, garlic, onion whites, soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar. Heat this slowly while stirring until the sauce is slightly cooked through, then taste and adjust the seasoning.
Toss and serve

2. Boil the noodles in a quart or more of boiling water until they are barely done. Transfer the cooked noodles to the wok. Toss the noodles until they are all well coated, adding some of the hot pasta water as needed to keep them from clumping up. (To be honest, this will take more water than you expect the first time around.) Divide the noodles among the bowls, sprinkle on the onion greens, and serve hot. I like to offer small bowls of the pasta water on the side as a simple soup that can be used to further thin down the sauce as needed.


This makes an amazing breakfast if you toss a fried egg or two on top. Make the sauce ahead of time, and you'll be able to put this together in a minute or two. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Shanghainese favorite: fried green onion noodles

Don't let the simplicity of this recipe fool you. This is seriously delicious and is so good that the first time I made it, my husband requested it for three days in a row. I find it amazing that something so wonderful can be so easy, and yet it is. In fact, you might find after you taste it that this will be the kind of dish you too will make all the time.

Traditionally, this Shanghainese noodle dish is made with egg noodles and either vegetable or peanut oil. But after a bit of experimentation on family and friends (and myself, of course), I've found that buckwheat noodles (or soba) and olive oil turn a simple bowl of noodles into the food of the gods. Besides, all that buckwheat and olive oil is good for you, and that has to count for something.

The fried onions and oil can be made ahead of time, and I recommend making extra because both are fantastic on just about anything savory. They're great with eggs, sprinkled over poached chicken, steamed fish, or fried eggs, and bread sopped in this heavenly oil and sprinkled with a bit of fleur de sel has been known to make people (okay, me) moan with delight.

The recipe multiplies easily and is great for a party. Any leftovers probably could be stored in the refrigerator, but I've never gotten around to having leftovers, so I really couldn't say for sure.

Fried green onion noodles 
Cōngyóu miàn 蔥油麵
Serves 4 to 6 generously as a side dish

Fried onions:
12 green onions
1½ cups oil (olive, vegetable, or peanut)

¼ cup light soy sauce, plus more if needed
Turn onions into something divine
¾ cup salted stock, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons small dried shrimp, optional, soaked for 30 minutes in boiling water

12 ounces dry noodles (buckwheat noodles recommended)4 quarts filtered water
3 tablespoons sea salt

1. Clean and trim the green onions, pat them dry (this is important since you don't want them to spatter in the oil), and then slice them into either thin rounds or on the angle into long thin ovals.

2. Line a plate with a paper towel and place it next to the stove along with a slotted spoon. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat. When it just begins to shimmer, add a few pieces of the onion to the oil. What you want is for the onions to gently bubble, so adjust the heat as needed and add the rest of the onions to the oil. Stir the onions every minute or so and let them slowly cook, giving them a chance to release their fragrance and gradually dry out. Keep an eye on the onions, and as soon as they start to smell toasty and a few begin to brown, stir them almost constantly so that they brown evenly.

3. Once almost all of them are a light brown, remove them from the oil with the slotted spoon and place them on the paper towel. Set the wok with the hot oil aside if you're going to use it immediately; otherwise, let the seasoned oil (which is the same as green onion mingyou) cool. pour it into a clean glass jar before storing it in a cool area.

4. Pour the soy sauce and stock into a large work bowl and stir in the flavored oil. If you are using the dried shrimp, check them over and remove any black sandy veins or foreign matter before chopping them into fine pieces.

5. Put the water into a large pot and add the salt; bring the water to a boil. About 5 to 10 minutes before you want to serve this dish, stir the noodles into the water and gently swish them often so that they don't stick together. As soon as the water starts to boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook the noodles until they are barely done. Place a colander in the sink and drain the noodles into it, but don't rinse them, as the starch on the noodles will help to thicken the sauce and allow it to evenly coat each strand.

6. Put the cooked noodles into the work bowl with the sauce (and optional minced shrimp) and toss them well. You want the noodles slightly soupy since they'll absorb some of the sauce, so add more stock if needed. Taste the noodles and add a bit more soy sauce if you want.

7. Divide the noodles and sauce into your serving bowls, garnish with all of the fried onions, and serve these glorious noodles to a rapturous welcome.

Green onion oil 
Cōngyóu  蔥油
Makes 1½ cups

Follow the directions for frying the onions. Cool the onions in the oil, drain out the delicious onions, and store the in a cool, dry place for up to a couple of weeks. Pour the oil into a squeeze bottle and keep it next to your stove for easy access.  If you keep the oil longer than a few weeks, taste it before using to make sure that it's still nice and fresh. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

More roast pork magic

One of the best ways to deal with an aching head — be it from a cold, your allergies, or a long night on the town — is a hot bowl of congee. It is soothing and delicious and full of savory bits that will restore your faith in the human race. Of course, if you are not feeling well, even the idea of waiting for breakfast can be daunting. But congee is easy to make ahead of time, and it only needs to be microwaved until it is boiling hot before the tasty bits are added.

Most traditional recipes for this classic congee use blanched or stir-fried pork strips, and that was the way I always made it, too. And then, on my birthday last month, we headed to my favorite Cantonese deli for brunch. I ordered a big bowl of this soothing congee and found shreds of roast pork waiting for me. What a great birthday present that was.

Leftover nirvana
Called siu yuk 燒肉 in Cantonese, this roast pork is not at all sweet and red like char siu, but rather has a golden, deeply fried skin that is crackly and delicious when hot. The cut is from a big side of pork, so it is not too fat, and yet it’s buttery enough to be juicy and tender. Most Cantonese delis will have this hanging in the front window alongside the roasted ducks and chickens, and I like to take a hunk home with me for later snacking. 

This is one of my absolute favorite go-to recipes now that I know what to do with all the delicious shreds at the bottom of the box. Even the bones get used, so keep any that you find. And don’t forget the skin... it adds a wonderful layer of texture. Other than that, personalize this as you like, with crispy cruller (youtiao) slices instead of the peanuts, cilantro in place of the green onions, and even some fresh eggs dribbled into the hot congee instead of the preserved ones.

My favorite... now even better
Pork and preserved egg congee
Pídàn shòuròu zhōu 皮蛋瘦肉粥
Serves 4 to 6

1 cup broken jasmine rice
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon fresh peanut or vegetable oil
17 cups water
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 tablespoons mild rice wine
Any bones from the roast pork

The tasty bits:
4 ounces (or more) shredded roast pork
2 preserved eggs (pidan)
More sea salt or light soy sauce, optional
1 green onion, trimmed
2 tablespoons toasted peanuts
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Rinse the rice in a sieve until the water runs clear, and then place it in a heavy-bottomed, large pot. Mix the salt and oil into the rinsed rice and let it sit for at least an hour so that it gently seasons and tenderizes the grains.

2. While the rice is marinating, shred the pork into smallish bits while reserving the bones and discarding any large pieces of fat. Shred the skin into thin pieces while you’re at it. Slice the green onion into fine rounds and coarsely chop the peanuts.

Ready to serve
3. Add the water to the pot, stir, and bring to a full boil before lowering the heat to a gentle simmer; add the ginger, rice wine, and any bones that you might have from the roast pork. Cook the congee for 40 or so minutes, stirring occasionally and always scraping the bottom of the pan, until the grains have bloomed and the liquid has thickened. You may also use an automatic rice cooker with a “porridge setting.” The congee will be ready when the grains have blossomed into soft little puffs, but don’t overcook the rice to the point that it becomes gluey. It’s important to be able to see each individual grain and to be able to feel them as they gracefully glide across your tongue.  The most important key to a perfect bowl of congee is cooking it to the exact point of doneness — everything else is secondary.

4. Pluck out and discard the bones. Toss in the pork, skin, and preserved eggs. Simmer these for around a minute just to heat them through and turn them a bit softer. Taste the congee and adjust the seasoning as needed; it may need more salt or a touch of soy sauce, depending upon the saltiness of the pork. Ladle the congee out among as many bowls as you wish, and then sprinkle the tops with the green onions, peanuts, and black pepper. Serve piping hot.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Heavenly deli leftovers

If your idea of a good time is to eat in a Cantonese deli, join the club. I love few things as much as a place with birds and pig parts hanging in the window, and my favorite restaurants include a handful of places that know how to make the perfect roast duck, char siu (sweet Cantonese pork), and siu yuk, or roast pork (called shaorou in Mandarin). The problem is that I always order too much, and so I usually haul lots of leftovers home. 

Roast duck and char siu don’t need much work to make them shine again the next day (just heat them up on a broiler tray in the oven at 350°F), but siu yuk’s skin will soften and the meat will congeal a bit, so I’ve come up with a couple of strategies to enjoy them in whole new ways. 
Taro plus siu yuk

One of them is this, a riff on a traditional Hakka treat that usually calls for fresh pork belly. Since siu yuk is made with the whole side of a pig, it’s a perfect fit, and easy to boot.

Cantonese roast pork with taro
Yùtóu shāoròu 芋頭燒肉
Serves 4 to 6

Taro and pork:
1 pound (more or less) mature taro
1 cup frying oil (used all right if it smells fresh)
8 ounces (or so) siu yuk
Slice the taro

¼ cup thinly sliced fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 green onions, trimmed and chopped
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons mild rice wine
2 cubes fermented bean curd (doufuru; see Tip)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 cup boiling water, divided
Chopped cilantro for garnish, optional

1. If you are allergic to raw taro, wear gloves while working with it. (I do.) Use a potato peeler to remove the skin, trim off any damaged areas, and rinse the taro before patting it very dry with a paper towel. Slice the taro into pieces that are about an inch wide all around. Pour the wok into a wok, set it over high heat, and add about half of the taro to the oil when it starts to shimmer. Reduce the heat to medium and stir the taro occasionally as it fries. When one side is hard and even puffs up a little, turn that piece over. Remove the taro with a Chinese spider and chopsticks, shaking off most of the oil as you go, and place it in a clean work bowl. If your deli has not cut up the siu yuk for you, slice it into pieces around the same size as the taro; large bones can be cut out and reserved for something else (see next week's recipe!). Have a wide, heatproof, rimmed plate ready. Arrange the taro and pork in an overlapping pattern (pork-taro-pork-taro) in the plate, and if you have extra taro, slip it in between some other slices. Place any awkward-looking pieces in the center of the dish and cover them with prettier ones.
Fried taro slices

2. Next, make the sauce: Drain out all but 1 tablespoon of the oil in your wok and place it over high heat. Add the ginger, garlic, and green onion to the hot oil and stir-fry them for a few seconds to release their fragrance. Stir in the rice wine, fermented bean curd, sugar, five-spice, and ½ cup boiling water. Mash the bean curd so that it dissolves well and bring the sauce to a boil. Pour this over the pork and taro.

3. Place the pork and taro in a steamer and steam this for 1½ hours, adding more water to the steamer as needed — this dish can be made ahead of time up to this point, cooled, and refrigerated. Pour the extra ½ cup of boiling water into the pork dish and steam it for another 30 minutes. The taro should be soft but not falling apart at this point. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning as needed. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro, if you like. Serve hot.
Cantonese-style doufuru


I like to use Cantonese-style doufuru here. It's a bit funkier, not at all sweet, and adds a nice edge to the seasoning. I also prefer it when there are flecks of chili in the sauce, as this adds just a suggestion of heat to this dish. Taiwan's Hwang Ryh Shiang 黃日香 brand is the one I usually get, as it is very creamy and has good balance. It comes from Daxi 大溪, a village that lies not too far from Taipei, and for some reason the doufuru from that place is almost always spectacular.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Welcome 2015 with this spectacular dessert soup

Just in time for New Year celebrations is a showstopper that is perfect for cold weather.

This is a soup unlike anything you've probably ever tried because it's thick and creamy, slightly sweet, smooth as silk, and deliciously aromatic from lots of toasted sesame. And if that and the impossibly beautiful design aren't enough to convince you, how about this: it's super easy!

Yes, there are a lot of steps to this, but that is mainly to make each part of the recipe clear. Read it through a couple of times and you will see how deceptively simple this really is.

Northern and eastern China possess a nice selection of creamy sweet soups made out of an assortment of nuts or seeds, thickened with toasted rice, and sweetened with a light hand. Served for breakfast, they warm the toes and ready the soul for a day at the office. In the afternoon, they wake you up and make you - if not deliriously happy to go back - at least energized enough to resume work. And after a huge dinner, the soup as a dessert trickles down and nestles in between the food in your stomach, providing a last bit of heat to help the digestion. Or so is my belief.

The Chinese name for this is Taiji hu because taiji describes this type of yin-yang pattern, while hu is a thick, sweet soup. One thing you should always notice - and this is a detail that even some Chinese folks get wrong - is the direction of the paisleys: they should go in a counter-clockwise direction, as in the Buddhist swastikas (, pronounced wàn) that adorn temples and decorate things like tiles and often appear as fretwork. You can also call this Yinyang hu because this is all about good old yin and yang coming together to form something perfect.
Raw sticky rice

Yin yang sweet sesame soup
Tàijí hú 太極
 or Yīnyáng hú 陰陽糊
Serves 12 or more

½ cup raw sticky (or glutinous or sweet) rice
¾ cup raw white sesame seeds (see note below)
¾ cup raw black sesame seeds
3 egg-sized pieces of rock sugar, or white sugar to taste
8 cups filtered water
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup water
¼ cup cream or half-and-half (or unflavored soy or coconut creamer)

1. You can start this recipe up to three days ahead of time, as the two soups can be cooked and then rest in the refrigerator up to the last minute. 

2. Everything needs to be toasted first, so get out your wok but don't add any oil. The rice and sesame seeds will all need to be dry-fried separately and will need three small dry bowls to hold them. 

Toasting up the rice
3. Place your wok over medium-high heat until a drop of water immediate evaporates with a sizzle as soon as it hits the pan. Dry-fry the rice by putting the unwashed, uncooked rice in the wok (again, no oil should be added), and then stir the rice while it cooks. As soon as it turns an opaque white and then a light gold, remove the rice to one of the bowls.

4. Do the same thing next with the white sesame seeds, cooking them until they start to pop, smell delicious, and are a light gold, and then removing them to another bowl. Finally, dry-fry the black sesame seeds in the same way until they start to pop and smell good, and place them in the third bowl.

5. If you're using rock sugar (and you should, since it doesn't leave a sour aftertaste), boil 2 cups of the water and dissolve the sugar in it. If not dissolve about ¼ cup of sugar in 2 cups of boiling water; you can add more sugar to taste later on. Prepare two 1-quart, heatproof, covered containers.

6. Place half of the toasted rice and all of the white sesame seeds in a blender with 3 cups of the water. Blend on high speed until you're left with a thin, silky batter. Pour the batter into a quart saucepan and stir it over medium-high heat until it starts to bubble and thicken.

7. Add half of the sugar water, teaspoon salt, and half of the cornstarch slurry to the white sesame soup, continue to stir it over the medium-high heat until it bubbles around the edge, and then lower the heat to medium and stir the soup until it turns glossy and there's no taste of cornstarch left; add all of the cream and pour the soup into one of the containers. Taste again and add more sugar if desired. Cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate.

Thickening up nicely
9. Repeat this step with the black sesame seeds, using the rest of the sugar water, salt, and cornstarch slurry; don't add any cream to the black sesame soup, though, as it will turn the soup a disappointing gray.

10. While the soup is chilling, select a 1- to 2-quart serving bowl (use the larger size, of course, if you're serving more than 6 people); it needs to have fairly straight sides, as it will be hard to fit the mold in later on if the sides are sloped. Tear off about a foot of heavy foil and fold it up twice width-wise so that you have a firm 3-inch wide strip of foil. Look at the picture at the top of this post and make a reverse S shape with the foil, folding it and cutting it as needed so that it fits pretty snugly into the top 3 inches of your serving bowl. 

11. Before you make your final serving preparations, place a small bowl and soup spoon on the dining table for each of your guests so that you can serve them later on. Go into the kitchen and close the door so that you can keep your secrets, well, secret.

12. Heat each soup up separately on the stove or in the microwave. They will be thick, so take care that they don't boil over or scorch. Put a ladle in each container and place them next to your serving bowl. Ladle in a bit of each soup in the bottom third of the bowl; it doesn't matter if they run together at this point, and no one will see them. 

13. Hold the S form in the bowl with one hand and start gently ladling in white sesame soup on one side and black sesame soup on the other. Alternate this on each side so that the levels remain equal and the soup isn't tempted to run around. When you reach about an inch from the top of the bowl, smoothly pull the S form out; the soups will stay magically in place because they are of equal thickness. Place about a tablespoon of the white soup in the thickest part of the black paisley and a tablespoon of the black soup in the thickest part of the white paisley, and smooth out each dot into a nice little circle. 

14. Gently carry the soup to the dining table with as much flourish as you can muster. Allow your guests to admire your handiwork, take photos, pose with with the soup, etc., before you serve them. 

Note: Quality sesame seeds are really important here. Taste them, if you can, before you buy them, as old sesame seeds will carry their stale flavor over into the soup. Also, cheap seeds will often have bits of gravel or sand in them, so spend a little more and buy either a good Japanese brand or the best that your health food has to offer. If you can only buy them already toasted, that's all right. Just toast the seeds lightly again to bring out their flavor, but keep a close eye on them so that they don't burn.