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Monday, April 14, 2014

Homemade Cantonese food at its best: the salted fish pork patty

This is one of the homiest Cantonese dishes of all, and variations on this simple meat patty are found throughout the region, as shown in the Tips. 

Sometimes sold in mom ‘n pop restaurants in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere, this dish is probably best when you can weasel an invitation to dinner at a friend’s house, where an auntie or grandma will make this according to some ancient recipe that has been passed down through the generations like a culinary heirloom. At least, that is where I fell in love with it.

In Cantonese families, this dish usually has a strip of salted fish on top of the seasoned pork. What this fish does is work as a seasoning, with all of those rich, savory flavors working down into the crevices in the pork and insinuating themselves into each lovely mouthful. 
Savory home cooking

Salted fish can be pretty overwhelming on its own, but when it is just a small piece that is steamed in pork juices, it loses some of its considerable funk and mighty saltiness, turning into a condiment of sorts. I prefer the fish in whole pieces on top, as I like to savor it in between bites of the pork. My husband, however, prefers it when I first steam the fish separately and flake it; this way all the bones are gone and the salted fish gets mixed up with the raw pork mixture before it is steamed. It's all a matter of personal taste.

When I lived in Taiwan, the preferred garnish for this dish was not fish but salted egg yolks, while other families mixed in some chopped pickles. The main aim in each version was simply to contrast the rich pork flavors with something salty and very savory, making this inexpensive dish a family favorite all over the Coastal Southeast.
Supple = fresh


Steamed minced pork with salted fish
Xiányú ròubĭng 鹹魚肉餅
Guangdong
Serves 4

1 pound ground pork (15% fat or so)
3 green onions, trimmed and chopped
2 to 3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce OR 4 tablespoons finely chopped pickled mustard with 1 tablespoon of the juice
8 or so water chestnuts (fresh or frozen), coarsely chopped, optional
3 tablespoons rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu)
2 tablespoons shallot oil
1 slice (2 ounces, or so) salted fish (see Tips)

Frozen water chestnuts
1. Place the pork in a medium work bowl and mix in the green onions, garlic, ginger, sugar, mushroom seasoning, soy sauce/pickled mustard, optional water chestnuts, rice wine, and shallot oil. (Your hand is probably the best bet for this.)

2. Shape the meat into a patty and pack it into a shallow bowl that fits easily into your steamer. Smooth down the top of the patty and squish the salted fish into the center. Place the bowl into a steamer and steam the patty on high for about 35 minutes; insert a chopstick into the center of the meat, and if the juices run clear, it’s done. Serve hot with steamed rice.

Tips

Use ground dark turkey meat instead of pork, if you like.

Pickled mustard
If you are in a older Cantonese-style Chinatown, stay on the lookout for baskets full of good dried fish. My favorite for this and most other dishes is called "three-tooth salted fish," or sānyá xiányú 三牙鹹魚, a smallish variety of croaker that has been cured and then air dried. 

Check for freshness by covering your hand with a plastic bag and then gently squeezing the fish. If it has the “give” of the ball of flesh between your thumb and finger, the fish should still be fresh. Smell it carefully and reject any that have a distinctly fishy or unclean aroma, as these should give off only the scent of the sea. These salted croakers are never at their best when dried to a hard texture; rather, you should be able to bend the fish into a U without it breaking.

Prepare salted fish by first cutting off however much you want to use. Scrape off any scales and dark areas, and then rinse it well and pat dry. Refrigerate the rest sealed up in a plastic bag.

Oil-packed salted fish is often available in Cantonese grocery stores, but I’ve become a bit leery of the quality of both the fish and the oil. And so, proceed to the next tip:

Vacuum-packed plastic bags that contain fillets of salted yellow croaker (or the three-tooth salted fish mentioned above) are good starting points for this dish. I then stick these fish into a medium canning jar, cover them with fresh oil, and then steam the jar covered in foil for about an hour. Pluck out a slice of the now nicely funky fish and store the rest in the fridge for next time. (These fillets can be found in the refrigerated section of Cantonese grocery stores near all the other dried and preserved meats.)

My family gets very possessive about this dish when I stick the raw yolks from brined eggs all over the top instead of the fish. You can use as many as you like; I tend to figure on 2 yolks per person to avoid fistfights from breaking out at the table.

Chopped Taiwanese huagua pickles or something similar are great in here, too. Just add some of the liquid from the pickles to the mix instead of the soy sauce.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Heavenly fried rice from Shanghai

It’s hard to believe, but in all the time that I have written this blog I have rarely talked about fried rice. And yet, this quintessential member of just about any take-out menu seems to be one of the things that most non-Chinese order when they sit down for a Chinese meal. 

One of the big reasons why I have avoided it up to now is most likely that I let out a silent groan whenever someone gets a big plate of fried rice no matter what Chinese cuisine the restaurant offers. Beijing Muslim, Taiwanese, Chaozhou… fried rice is the fail-safe order for way too many people.

I have to admit, though, that I do love good fried rice. Many areas have their own versions, but the best come from Guangdong and the Yangtze River Delta. And when it comes to these two places, my hands-down favorites are a Cantonese one with salted fish and chicken and the Shanghainese recipe we’re looking at today.

Fry the eggs in a well of rice
To me, this is perfection in a bowl. It is so subtle and yet so satisfying that I can finish off half of this recipe with pleasure even if nothing else is on the table, and yet so refined that it could also appear at the end of a Zhejiang-style banquet.

Here are my secrets for the best fried rice:

Use only long-grain white rice. Jasmine rice is perfect because it is not too starchy and so cooks up into fluffy, individual grains. Short-grain rice mushes up easily, and brown rice is too heavy.

Cook the rice ahead of time and let it cool completely, which means at least to room temperature. This helps separate the grains even further so that you end up with very light fried rice.

Fry the rice in only a minimum of oil. This keeps the grains from getting soggy and heavy, and it also ensures that you taste the sweet flavor of the rice more than the oil.

Soft, creamy cashews
Allow the other ingredients—both solids and seasonings—to blend in fully with the rice. Because the grains are fairly bland, use strong flavors that will not be washed out in this combination. That is one reason why I like salted fish and seaweed here so much.

I also enjoy getting some toasty aromas in the rice, and so I give it a chance to brown in the oil. This Shanghainese touch makes some of the mouthfuls a bit crunchy while others are soft.

Consider doubling this recipe to make more than you immediately need because fried rice can be reheated for a quick meal later on in the week.


Gold and silver fried rice with laver seaweed and cashews
Jīnyín hǎidài yāoguŏ chǎofàn 金銀海帶腰果炒飯
Jiangsu, Zhejiang
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side

Rice:
2 cups cooked, white, long-grain rice
OR
1 cup jasmine (or other long-grain white) rice
1½ cups filtered water (or whatever your rice steamer calls for)

Fried rice:
½ cup whole, raw cashews (see Tips)
6 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon sea salt
All of the cooked rice
1½ cups chopped laver seaweed (i.e., nori; see Tips)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Sea salt to taste
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Add seaweed to the rice

1. If you do not have 2 cups leftover long-grain white rice, make some fresh. Those of you who do not have a steamer can easily cook it on a stove: Rinse the rice, place it in a medium saucepan, and cover it with the water. Bring the pot to a full boil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and let the rice slowly simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the rice steam in there for 10 minutes or more. Scrape the rice out onto thin layer on a rimmed baking pan and let it cool completely, tossing it lightly now and then to release the steam. (The rice can be made ahead of time and either refrigerated or frozen. Defrost completely before proceeding.)

2. Lightly chop the cashews until they are the size of peas. Dry-fry them in a wok by toasting them over medium heat until they start to brown on the edges and smell fantastic. Remove the nuts to a bowl.

3. Pour ¼ cup of the oil into the hot wok and swirl it around. Add the ½ teaspoon salt and all of the rice. Toss the rice over medium to medium-high heat until it starts to steam and turn golden in places. Add the laver seaweed and toss this to make the seaweed start to break apart. 

4. Make a well in the center of the rice, pour in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, and then add the beaten eggs to the oil. Let the eggs set for a moment, and then cook them in this well until they look curdled and are about half done. Add the nuts to the rice and toss all of these together. Taste and adjust the seasoning with a sprinkle more salt. Drizzle the sesame oil over the top, give the rice a final toss, and serve.

Tips

Use other nuts like pine nuts if you prefer. Whatever they are, they should not be hard like almonds, but rather slightly soft, which makes them fit into the rice better.
Hungry yet?

Laver seaweed, or nori, is best in Japanese or Korean grocery stores. The little individual packets are expensive, so buy the larger sheets. Chop the seaweed with kitchen shears. If you prefer, you could even pulverize these in a food processor or blender.

A little sprinkle of sea salt at the end makes a world of difference to this dish, as it adds a slight crunch and a sparkle of flavor. How much you add will depend upon the saltiness of the seaweed, as well as your palate.

Eat like the Chinese and use a big spoon instead of chopsticks. Just pile the rice into bowl and dig in. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Balancing act: dried fish with chicken gets fabulous

One of the hallmarks of China’s many cuisines is the combination of dried and fermented ingredients with fresh foods. In fact, most of this country’s dishes feature this contrast to varying degrees. 

Soy sauce—or any other fermented bean or grain or seafood paste—is the usual suspect on the savory side of the equation, as they provide a luxurious sense of depth and xianwei (aka umami). This in turn balances out the vibrant fresh flavors of whatever vegetable or protein is being used.
           
In addition to sauces, though, many dried and salted ingredients season China’s dishes. Particularly in the southeastern quadrant—including Chaozhou, Southern Fujian, Taiwan, and the Hakka areas—things like dried shrimp and scallops, tiny sundried anchovies and large flattened squid, salted and fermented mustard, and cured radishes—give the region many of its distinctive aromas. And then to the north and south of this area, the Yangtze River Delta and the province of Guangdong lovingly sandwich the southeast and offer a plethora of their own unique takes on xianwei.
Cut the soaked fish shards

As you might expect in the Yangtze River Delta, where foods tend to be much more subtle than just about any other part of China, pungency is rarely treasured. In fact, the further you travel toward the Pacific Ocean, the milder foods become. And so, when dried fish shows up on the menu around here, it is there usually as a suggestive seasoning rather than an overt one, as well as a textual counterpart to whatever happens to be juicy in that dish.

That is exactly what happens here, one of our favorites from the days when we ate regularly at the restaurant called Fuxingyuan in downtown Taipei. Bits of dried fish were soaked until soft and then quickly tossed with chunks of chicken. It was that wondrous contrast of fresh/dry, tender/chewy, and land/sea that drew us back time and again.

I have never been able to locate a good recipe for xiangkao ji, and so I have re-created it from memory with some adjustments to fit the reality of living on the wrong side of the Pacific. My main problem is that dried whole fish tends to be offered in uneven states of quality and freshness on these shores.

Korean bonito strips
The happy resolution is that I’ve come to rely on something that is a nice substitute: dried bonito. This is not the shaved bonito that is used in Japanese cooking, but rather the large strips that are sold in Korean stores. Clean and for the most part boneless, this dried fish is easily plumped up and turns into something bouncy, rather than chewy, which I find quite pleasant and a nice addition to this Shanghai classic.

Serve this to people who understand that there might be tiny bones to look out for, which means not feeding the fish, at least, to diners such as little children.


Chicken with dried fish
Xiǎngkǎo jī  鯗烤雞
Shanghai
Serves 4 to 6

2 ounces shredded dried bonito (see headnotes)
Tap water to cover
1½ pounds (or so) boneless, skinless chicken thighs (around 6 thighs)
5 or 6 green onions, trimmed
½ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
A Shanghai favorite of mine
¼ cup finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
6 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons light soy sauce (see Tips)
4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1. Start this recipe at least 4 hours before serving. First, place the dried fish in a medium work bowl and cover it with cool tap water. Poke the fish down every once in a while so that all of it gets a chance to sponge up the water. After it has soaked for around 3 hours and is light and springy, drain the fish well. Run your fingers down each strip and pull out any tiny bones with kitchen tweezers, and then use kitchen shears to cut each strip into pieces about 1 inch long.

2. Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the chicken into pieces around 1 inch square. Cut the green onions crosswise in half so that you have half white onions and half green leaves. Slice the whites and greens into 1-inch lengths, but leave them in separate piles (see Tips).

Fry the chicken in ginger oil
3. Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat, and when it starts to get warm, add the ginger. Swirl the ginger around in the oil until it is bubbly but not browned. Turn up the heat to high and immediately add all of the chicken. Toss the chicken in the hot oil, and when it has completely lost its pink color, add the whites of the onions, the rice wine, and the soy sauce, as well as the drained fish. Continue tossing these all together over high heat, and when the sauce has reduced to the consistency of maple syrup, taste and adjust the seasoning. Then, at the last minute, toss in the onion greens and sesame oil. Serve immediately.

Tips

Light soy sauce is used here because it is pale and has a milder flavor than regular soy sauce. A good alternative, I’ve found, is Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. It has a nice taste and, while not precisely the same thing as soy sauce, ends up tasting pretty authentic in dishes like this. You can find it in most health food stores.

Store the extra dried fish in a clean, covered jar; it will keep well for months. For longer storage, freeze to keep it from possibly going buggy.
Separate piles for the onions

Like spinach and Swiss chard, a green onion is composed of two distinct parts that can be treated differently, if you like. The white part that grows under the soil has a pronounced onion flavor that mellows with heat; it can overpower certain dishes if served raw, so here you see it tempered with the quick stir-fry. The greens, on the other hand, are more delicate and dissolve if allowed to cook too long, so in many of the dishes on this blog you will see that they are added at the last minute. They can then be cooked briefly, as here, to play down their onion nature a bit while preserving their brilliant emerald hue, or left raw to add more bite.

Green onions can be cut straight across into 1-inch lengths or at an angle, whichever you prefer.

Notice how all of the main solids end up approximately the same size. This is an important principle in most of China’s cuisines and gives you a dish that is not only visually pleasing—the shapes harmonizing with each other while the subtle color differences providing contrast—but also beautifully tasty, as each bite will easily include a shard of fish and onion with a chunk of chicken.

Monday, March 24, 2014

How to select & prep fresh chilies & garlic

Most areas of China employ these two ingredients in varying amounts, from dainty touches in the Yangtze River Delta to the fiery mounds that make foods in Sichuan and Guizhou so enticing. 

And so, it’s more than helpful to know how to deal with these two lovely aromatics, everything from selecting to storing to prepping them.

These two ingredients are easy to work with once you get to know them. Here's how...



Fresh chilies

Firm, fresh, & shiny
The first thing you need to know about these is how to determine whether your chili pepper is hot or mild, sweet or grassy. Heat is determined by the variety, while sweetness depends upon ripeness. Larger peppers tend to be milder than smaller ones, but of course your mileage will vary.

Select chilies that are firm and shiny. Run your fingers all over them; softness indicates rot. Check the caps, which should be green and firmly attached to the fruit, as this is often where rot begins. 

If the peppers are wrapped on a tray (as they often are in Chinese markets) and fondling is difficult, look at the cut ends of the stems: Shrinkage and darkening on the cut tells you that these have been sitting around for a while, so inspect them as carefully as you can.

Cut around the core
Store fresh peppers in the refrigerator, preferably in dry paper bag (to absorb moisture) wrapped in a plastic bag (to keep them from drying out). Wash them just before using and pat dry.

If you have sensitive skin, or if you are working with hotter peppers, wear gloves. I keep a box of surgical gloves in the kitchen for just such occasions, as well as for working with things like raw taro, which makes my skin itch.

Do not touch your face or any other sensitive area, as the juice will burn, and wash your hands carefully once you’ve finished prepping them, as these oils will cling to your skin or gloves.

Shake out the seeds
To seed a pepper, I’ve come to rely on this easy method: Slit the pepper down one side, slide the knife in between the flesh and the seeds, and then roll the knife around the core. You will end up with most of the seeds still attached to the core, and all you have to do is shake any wayward seeds out of the flesh. The pepper can then be sliced or chopped. 

You can leave the seeds in the peppers if you like them that way, but I prefer the smoothness of a seedless sauce, as well as the lack of bitterness that the seeds often provide.


Garlic

Fresh garlic is available year around, but the best ones to get (if you can find them) are the lavender ones that show up with the first harvest. These are juicy and tasty, so grab them.

Cut off the stem ends
Garlic imported from China has the rootlets removed, giving them smooth bases. Avoid this garlic if you can because of the high levels of pollution and heavy metals in the soil. Organic garlic is more expensive, of course, but it is generally fresher and much healthier.

Select heads that are firm all over. There should be no black areas in the papery coverings (that’s mildew) or green sprouts showing. Those sprouts tell you that the garlic has been on the shelf for a while, and the bulb’s energy has been transferred into reproduction and the individual cloves will begin to dry out. Refrigerate the garlic—like fresh chilies and ginger, for that matter—in dry paper bags wrapped with plastic bags.
Whack the clove with a blade

There are a couple of ways to peel garlic, but these are my favorites:

If you just want a couple of cloves, break them off of the bulb. If you want to prepare the whole head, cup it in your hand with the root side down and then smack the roots against a counter; this should break them off, or at least loosen them considerably. You now should have a bunch of individual garlic cloves in front of you. 

If you are not using all of them immediately, I strongly urge you not to peel the extras, as they rot easier once naked and also will smell up your fridge.


Remove any green sprouts
To peel a clove (or cloves) without mashing it, first trim off the hard root end. Then, lay the flat side of a wide knife or cleaver over the clove(s) and press down on in with your hand until the clove cracks; you then can slip off the papery covering. 

If you are planning to mince the garlic, then whack it with the side of your blade a la Martin Yan; this will leave you with a pulpy layer underneath that papery skin, and all you have to do is chop it a bit.

If you do find a green sprout in the center of a clove, remove it completely. Some people say that they taste bitter, but my main complaint is that they are tough and tasteless, so I jimmy them out with the tip of a knife and discard them. That particular clove will naturally be a tad less aromatic, but all in all still usable.

Fast chopping moves
Chop garlic by holding the handle of your knife with one hand and pressing down on the tip of the blade with the other. With this technique, the tip of the knife does not move, but rather acts as a stable point, allowing the blade to move freely in an arc over the food. You then can move your knife back and forth over the garlic (or any other ingredient) very rapidly. Use your blade to scrape up the garlic, and you're done.

By the way, use the search engine on this blog (in the right-hand column) to find many delicious ways to use these two delicious ingredients.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Beautiful & aromatic: fresh chili sauce from Zhejiang

Chili peppers are not usually associated with the cuisines along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, but now and then you will find spicy delights that increase in heat the further upriver you go. Anhui and Jiangxi, for example, have some pretty fiery dishes and more than their share of diehard chiliheads, and of course by the time you get the headwaters of the Yangtze, you are in pepper central: Sichuan.

However, out in the east in the delta area there is not much to be had in the way of chili peppers. The desire in such places as Jiangsu and Zhejiang tends more towards the subtle and the gentle. Dishes are generally seasoned with considerable restraint so that the natural flavors of the ingredients have the chance to shine.

Even so, chilies are welcome here as long as they are tamed. Usually showing up in condiments such as this sauce made from fresh peppers, the heat is turned down to an understated vibration, with fermented black beans, garlic, and green onions rounding out the flavors against a light oil base that restrains their raw natures even further. A short cooking both ensures that the sauce can be stored for weeks without molding and melds the various aromas together into a truly refined sauce.
 
Toss the chilies into the garlic & oil
I like to keep a small jar of this on the kitchen table to spark up simple dinners or breakfasts, and if I’m in a hurry or just don’t know what to eat, this beautiful red and black sauce comes to the rescue by turning even the blandest meal into a delight: smother hot eggs or rice or cooked cauliflower or bean curd or noodles with it, and then settle in for a very pleasing time.

But this is more than just a condiment, for it is a great way to pull together a fast dinner. Quickly stir-fry something like chopped chicken or sliced fish or shredded pork, and then toss in this sauce at the last minute. It couldn't be simpler.

Next week's post will show you some easy ways to prep your fresh chilies and garlic, so stay tuned!


Fresh chili sauce
Xīnxiān làjiāojiàng 新鮮辣椒醬
Zhejiang, Jiangsu
Makes 1½ cups

6 large red jalapeno peppers (6 to 7 ounces)
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 to 6 cloves garlic
And then add the black beans
¾ cup fermented black beans
¾ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
3 green onions, trimmed
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1. Wash the peppers and pat them dry. Stem and seed them (see Tips), and then cut them into small (less than ¼-inch) dice. Place the peppers in a small colander, toss them with the 1 teaspoon salt, and let the extra liquid in the peppers leach out over the next hour or two; discard the liquid.

2. Peel and chop the garlic into pieces about the same size as the diced peppers. Rinse the beans in a colander, shake dry, and then coarsely chop them, into something along the same size as the garlic and peppers.

3. Pour the oil into a cool wok and add the garlic. Slowly fry the garlic in the oil over medium heat until it sizzles and smells wonderful, but has not yet browned. Add the chilies and stir these together, and then add the beans. Slowly fry these together for around 15 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary to maintain little more than a gentle bubble in the oil.

The fast track to Nirvana
4. While the sauce is simmering away, cut each green onion lengthwise in half and then crosswise into pieces that are about the same size as the chilies. Add the green onions to the sauce after the 15 minutes are up, as well as the sugar. Stir and cook the sauce until the onions have wilted. Taste and adjust the seasoning with the salt, using more or less as needed. Refrigerate it in a glass jar.


Tips

Use other, fierier peppers here if you like this sauce hotter.                                                                                                         
You can leave the seeds in the peppers if you like them that way, but I prefer the smoothness of a seedless sauce, as well as the lack of bitterness that the seeds often provide.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Beans & rice Chinese style

Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are not usually associated with China’s cuisines. In fact, until I started cooking out of the classic cookbook Suiyuan shidan I had no idea that there was even a Chinese chickpea recipe to be had. But lo and behold, they were not only eaten in the Zhejiang region 250 years ago, but they must have been around long enough before that to develop a healthy following, for the two garbanzo recipes in that book are quite good.

One that has turned out to be a favorite in our house is chickpea congee. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but just like down-home rice and beans, this is a healthy and delicious combination. The chickpeas lend a gentle nuttiness to the rice porridge, their mealy texture mingling very nicely with the silky rice. It’s hard to explain, but its simplicity is part of its charm.

The author of the Suiyuan, Yuan Mei, described this dish in his usual concise manner: “Crush chickpeas for the congee; fresh ones are the absolute best, although older ones will work. Add Chinese yams [shanyao 山藥] or fuling 茯苓, and it will be outstanding.” (Fuling—also spelled fu ling—is a type of fungus that looks something like a little coconut. Wolfiporia extensa also has medicinal properties, and it is generally only found in Chinese herbal shops.)

I cannot wait until fresh chickpeas hit the market later on in the year, as I now know exactly what to do with them!

Mash up the chickpeas
If you read Chinese, you might notice that the word for chickpeas in Chinese is, literally, “chicken bean,” and as the old English word “pease” meant beans, this looks like the name might have been adopted from some European folks. It’s strange, though, as chickpeas are such a vital part of Arabian and Indian cookery that they didn’t cause there to be a Chinese riff on the word “hummus” or “gram.” Oh well, a linguistic puzzle to gnaw on. (Chickpeas have another Chinese name, yīngzuĭdòu 鷹嘴豆, or “eagle’s beak bean,” that also has me scratching my head.)

Mr. Yuan's suggestion that Chinese yams be added is inspired because they add a delicious lightness to the porridge and subtle textural contrast with the rice 'n beans. Just like the beans, though, they should be cooked until they are v-e-r-y soft in order to make this recipe perfect. I cut them into bits about the same size as the chickpeas so that they cook quickly; see the Tips below for more information on this relatively unfamiliar tuber.

This is a gentle, nourishing dish that is perfect for breakfast or a late night snack, although I would not refuse it at other times during the day. Serve it with whatever you like. I usually surround big bowls of it with small savory things like the tribute vegetable in the previous post, some brined eggs, fried eggs, Chinese sausages, fermented bean curd cheese, toasted peanuts… even leftovers seem to shine when cossetted by such a velvety porridge. Sweets lovers could toss some of those peanuts on top along with a sprinkling of sugar or honey (maybe even a pat of butter). Fried crullers (youtiao) are excellent, too. I mean really, the list is endless.


Chickpea congee
Jīdòu zhōu  雞豆粥
Zhejiang
Serves 2 to 4
  
½ cup broken jasmine rice
½ teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon sea salt
8 cups filtered water
1 cup cooked chickpeas (canned or ones you soaked and cooked yourself)
Optional: 1 cup finely diced peeled Chinese yam (see Tips)

1. Rinse the rice in a fine strainer, drain well, and place this in a 3-quart pot. Toss the damp rice with the oil and salt, and then let it marinate for at least an hour.

2. Pour in the water, stir, and bring the pot to a full boil before lowering the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the rice for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Chinese yam's hairy legs

3. If you are using canned chickpeas, rinse them in a strainer under tap water. Lightly mash about half of the chickpeas and then add all of them to the pot. If you want to add the Chinese yams, do that now, too. Stir and cook the porridge a while longer until it has thickened and both the chickpeas and yams are super soft and creamy. Serve just barely hot, but not steaming. Reheat any leftovers in the microwave.

Tips

Find Chinese yams in most East Asian stores, where it sometimes is sold under its Japanese name, nagaimo. It has numerous health benefits, so it is often added to nourishing soups. These can grow to enormous lengths, but usually are sold in more manageable sections of a foot or so long.

That lovely goo
To prepare these yams, rinse off the sawdust (that's what they are packed in to keep them dry), and then use a potato peeler to remove the thin skin. The insides are smooth, white, and very slippery, and will exude a mucilaginous goo that can appear quite alarming, as there are few things that do this, other than David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Rinse off the goo, if you want, to get a better grip, but be aware that more will appear, especially as you cut it more. Unlike things like taro, though, this is not a skin irritant, but rather just looks incredibly weird. Even so, you can eat it raw, as it is mild and crisp.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Magical mystery tour... what IS this vegetable?!

If you are looking at these photos and do not have a clue as to what this vegetable is, join the club, as that was my first reaction when I ran across a healthy mound of the stuff at a dry grocer’s in Oakland Chinatown. At first I thought it was dried long beans, but no. Then I thought, seaweed? A quick sniff disproved that. Flummoxed, I asked the Hunanese owner.
           
“It’s gongcai,” he answered. “What’s it made out of? “Gongcai,” was the answer. “I understand that, but what is gongcai?” He looked at me with an expression of exasperation and said in a quieter voice, “A dried vegetable.” After a few minutes, a couple of gears in my brain started to slowly turn and I sort of realized what it was I was looking at in those bins, as I had read of this thing called “tribute vegetable,” but had never eaten or even seen it before.
            
The shop owner reassured me that it was very tasty, very crunchy, and very easy to make. No cooking required, even. And they were beautiful arrayed with red ribbons around their bases, like dried-out bouquets. He told me how he made them, and so I took them home and found yet another thing to love about China’s dried ingredients.
            
Dried & plumped up
But one thing still puzzled me: what vegetable had been dried to make this? Googling did not help much, nor did all sorts of Chinese dictionaries. I soaked them, stared at the long, plump lengths, had an inkling of what it actually was, but nothing to confirm it.

And then one day as I was reading through the classic Chinese cookbook Suiyuan shidan 隨園食單, I found the following entry for a veggie known in the West as stem lettuce or celtuce: “There are two ways to eat stem lettuce: fresh with a sauce, which is light, crisp, and delightful, or cured as a dried ingredient, and which when sliced before eating is quite delicious. This must be mild for it to be good, as it has a disgusting flavor if heavily salted.” And that sealed it as far as I was concerned.

Celtuce (from Wikipedia)
When fresh, it is called either wōsŭn 萵筍 or wōjù 萵苣 and has the taste of romaine lettuce without the bitterness; both the stems and leaves are edible, but when dried only the stems are used. However, these stems, when peeled into strips and dried, are known as “tribute vegetable.”

As the Suiyuan author, Yuan Mei, points out, this should be salted with a gentle touch, as the heavy flavors of soy sauce would drown the fresh taste of this veggie. Too much salt would also pull the moisture out and leave you with a soggy pile. So, use only a smidgen of soy, but balance out the flavors with a bit of sesame oil, ginger juice, and sugar, as well as a nice dollop of black vinegar. This is fantastic with any sort of congee or as a cold appetizer.

Ready to eat

Tossed tribute vegetable
Liángbàn gòngcài   涼拌貢菜
Serves 6 to 8

1 bunch dried tribute vegetable (gongcai)
Cool tap water, as needed
1 tablespoon good soy sauce
1 tablespoon fresh ginger juice
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons good black vinegar
Optional garnish: cilantro and toasted sesame seeds

1. Start this in the morning so that it has time to marinate and chill for a couple of hours. Keep the stem ends of the tribute vegetable bundled, if at all possible, as this makes their trimming go much faster.

Making ginger juice
2.  Soak the dried vegetable in a pan of warm water, changing it a couple of times until the water no longer takes on any brownish color; this may take a couple of hours before the stems become a rather uniform pale green. Rinse the vegetable under running water, gently wring it dry, and then chop off all of the tough ends, as well as any raggedy leaves. Remove the tie at the stem end, if there is one, and then carefully pick over the vegetables, removing any less-than-perfect bits and detritus.

3. Rinse the vegetable again, if needed, and shake dry. Cut across the leaves to make 1-inch lengths. Place these in a medium work bowl.

4. Toss the vegetable with the rest of the ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for a couple of hours. Toss before serving as an appetizer or side dish.

Tips

Season gently
You can find tribute vegetable in some Chinese grocery and dry goods stores. In grocery stores, it will be packed in a plastic bag, but in dry goods stores it usually is stacked in bins.


Stronger aromatics like garlic and green onions can be added, as well as chili oil, but do this only at the last minute, as you want these tastes to remain on the surface of the vegetable and provide contrast to the sweet centers. Also, chopped garlic and green onions will take on an off flavor if allowed to sit too long.

Celtuce photo courtesy Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtuce