Monday, May 25, 2015

Smoked fish the Hunan way

Most folks who have experienced Chinese food only in Chinatown restaurants haven’t the slightest idea that smoked foods are a big deal in the motherland.

It’s amazing, but just about every region has its own take on smoked meat, fish, and poultry, and they all have tiny variations that act as clues to where that dish originated. Sometimes it’s a huge sign, like lamb in Henan near the desert regions, and in other dishes the signposts lie within the potpourri of spices that perfume the marinade or the smoking mixture or even both.

Slash down both sides
Where they almost all are alike is that the animal is first cooked — usually by steaming or braising — while smoking it over tea leaves, rice, and sugar is a final fillip that seasons and colors, but no more.

This fish is pretty unique in that the fish is actually cooked over the smoke. To achieve this, slow-burning wood chips are used instead of the tealeaves and rice, which ignite quickly once they have sugar as a starter, and so heats up the fish slowly while seasoning every morsel. (Here's the link to directions on setting up a homemade smoker.) The name of this way of cooking says it all: shengxun, or “raw smoked.” And if you get your hands on a fish with a really buttery texture, like sablefish, it will turn into an amazingly creamy mouthful tinged with a healthy perfume of smoke. 

Grate your ginger
You can make this well ahead of a dinner party by marinating the fish and then freezing it. The smoking process can be done without much effort, but even then, they can be done a day or two in advance. The fish only needs to be heated up before serving.

Smoked whole fish Hunan style
Shēngxūn yú 生薰魚
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multi-course meal, or 3 to 4 as a main entrée

One 2½-pound whole fish (see Tip)
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine

Wood chip smoking nest
2 large handfuls of apple wood smoking chips
¼ cup raw rice of any kind
¼ cup dry tea leaves of any kind
¼ cup sugar of any kind
2 tablespoons sea salt

Finishing touches:
2 tablespoons finely grated ginger
¼ cup good rice vinegar
½ bunch cilantro, trimmed and chopped
¼ cup chili oil
2 tablespoons good salt, like a fleur de sel
¼ cup toasted sesame oil

Pre-smoked fish
1. Start this at least a couple of hours before serving. Clean and scale the fish, remove the gills and fins (keep or remove the head and tail, depending upon the size of your smoker and fish), and rinse it thoroughly under cool running water. Pat it dry with a paper towel, and then cut two long gashes down the sides of the fish parallel to, and about one inch from, the backbone.

2. Mix together the grated ginger, green onions, Sichuan peppercorns, and salt, and then rub a third of this mixture respectively into the insides of the fish and into both sides, paying particular attention to the long gash. Place the fish into a large, clean plastic bag and pour the wine into the insides and onto both sides of the fish. Tie the bag shut, place it on a plate, and refrigerate it for 2 to 8 hours to marinate.
Smoked and gorgeous

3. Prepare your smoker, lining the bottom with some foil. Spray the grate that lies over the center of the smoker with oil. Scatter the dry wood chips in an even layer on top of the foil. Place the covered smoker to the rear of your stove, turn the fan on high and open some windows for cross-ventilation, and turn the heat under the smoker to high.

4. While the smoker is heating up, remove the fish from the bag and knock off all of the aromatics from both inside and outside the fish, including the gashes. When the smoker starts to have little tendrils of smoke come out of it, place the fish right-side up on the grate, immediately cover the smoker, and lower the heat under the smoker to medium-high. Smoke the fish for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until it is almost — but not quite — done.

5. Mix together the rice, tea leaves, sugar, and salt. Remove the grate with the fish on it and sprinkle the rice mixture over the embers in the smoker. Return the grate with the fish to the smoker, cover it, return it to smoke for another minute or two at medium-high heat, and then immediately move the smoker off of the hot burner. Let the smoker cool down with the lid on and the fish inside it so that the fish is slowly seasoned by the tea. (The fish may be prepared up to this point ahead of time, cooled to room temperature, and refrigerated. When you are ready to serve it, warm the fish in a 275°F oven until heated through.)

6. While you are waiting, prepare the various condiments: combine the vinegar and ginger in a small bowl, and use other bowls or saucers of appropriate sizes to separately hold the cilantro, chili oil, and salt.

Liked smoked butter. Really.
7. Remove the fish to a serving platter. Just before serving, heat the sesame oil in a wok until it starts to smoke, and then pour the hot oil all over the fish. Serve it with the condiments. To eat, use chopsticks to pluck off chunks of the fish and dip them in the various sides as desired.


The best fish for this type of preparation is one with a buttery texture, like a small sablefish, amberjack, sea bass, or yellowtail. Get one that fits your smoker, so if you need to settle for a fish that is around 1½ pounds, just adjust the seasonings accordingly. The main thing you want to pay attention to is the amount of salt, as extra ginger, green onions, etc., will not vastly change the flavor.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A refreshing and crunchy appetizer from Beijing

As the weather heats up around here, it's time for me to start thinking about cool and refreshing meals, because if you're anything like me, your appetite lags in direct proportion to the rise in mercury.  

One way to make food more appealing is to offer a spread of what the Chinese call "stomach openers," or kaiweicai, the very definition of appetizers. Most of what I offer here are vegetarian - that's because to my mind few things are as refreshing on a sweltering day as cold salads and chilled veggies.

Today's recipe is a popular Beijing-style dish that is an easy toss of blanched spinach and fried peanuts. As with all things Chinese, though, the secret is in the balance, in the timing, and in the brilliant contrasts between flavors and textures.

If you've been cooking along with this blog, Spinach and Peanut Appetizer will prove to be particularly foolproof since it relies on the delicious fried peanuts I showed you how to make a long while ago. Plus, you'll want to spike this dish with either the dressing that's given below or, if you are really industrious, you'll be able to lace it with some of that glorious garlic-infused sweet vinegar that is the ambrosial by-product of the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves of Shanxi. In fact, this makes perfect sense, because Shanxi is up there in the northern reaches of China, not too far at all from Beijing, and so if it seems that these dishes come together as if they were closely related, that's because they are.
Easy peasy

The only thing I ask you to take particular care with - aside from frying the peanuts, of course - is the washing of the spinach. Nothing destroys a spinach dish faster than grit, and spinach seems to hold onto sand with impressive tenacity. The best way to wash spinach is to use the trick I learned eons ago from Marian Morash's Victory Garden Cookbook: Wash the spinach in a tub of warm water, which is easier on your hands and so makes swishing around the leaves a whole lot more pleasant. Rinse and swish the spinach, changing the water each time until there is absolutely no sand left in the bottom of the bowl. Then, shake the leaves dry; you don't need to get them totally dry for this dish, as they are going to be blanched.

Chinese dishes rarely call for spinach to be stemmed. If you have a tough bunch of spinach, though, this is a great time to learn how to remove the stems ala Julia Child: just grab the leaves with one hand while pulling up on the stems like a zipper with the other... totally easy and a skill that will come in handy more times than you'll think possible. No need to throw out the stems, though; toss them into your stockpot or rinse them well, chop them finely, blanch or stir-fry, and season as desired. (Sorry, but my thrifty Scot nature has a nervous breakdown at the first sign of waste.)

Enjoy this dish either chilled or slightly warm. If you are making it ahead of time, wait until the last minute to toss in the dressing and peanuts so that the spinach remains a lovely emerald green and the peanuts stay crunchy.
Wash the spinach carefully, please

Beijing-style spinach and peanut appetizer 
Bōcài huāshēng
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer, 2 to 3 as a side dish

1 bunch (about 12 ounces) fresh spinach, as tender as possible
¼ cup fried peanuts
2 to 3 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
3 or more tablespoons sauce from the sweet pickled garlic cloves (or
1 clove garlic, finely minced, plus 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce, plus 1 tablespoon tasty dark vinegar, plus 1 teaspoon sugar)
Sea salt to taste

1. Clean the spinach as directed above, removing any tough stems. Blanch the spinach by bringing about 2 inches of water to a boil in a large (2 quart) covered saucepan before adding the spinach, covering the pot again, and then quickly tossing the spinach with a pair of tongs as soon as the water boils again. Once all of the leaves have wilted, but are still bright green and barely cooked, drain the spinach in a colander set in the sink. Spray cold water over the spinach to stop the cooking and preserve the color. Lightly squeeze the spinach dry and chill it if you are not serving it immediately.

2. If you haven't fried the peanuts yet, do so now, as they will need to cool down before they become crispy. 
The delectable dressing

3. To make the dressing, combine the sesame oil with either the sauce from the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves or the rest of the ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

4. Just before serving, toss the spinach with the sauce and the Fried Peanuts. Serve cold.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The sweetness of water chestnuts

I adore the delicate desserts of China’s southern regions, particularly those of Guangdong.

This might have something to do with the infamous sweet tooth my late father-in-law sported, and I guess I caught the bug from him. He was a devotee of his thin black sesame candies that he swore kept his hair black, but I’m pretty sure it was just an excuse to keep a good supply on hand.

Perfect with hot tea
I could always count on him to come up with something sweet and tasty to enjoy whenever we rambled around Los Angeles’s old Chinatown. One of his favorites was airy lunjiaogao (also known as "white sugar cake") with its winy aroma, and another was the steamed amber confection called Malagao. But he rarely beamed as brightly as when he was confronted with a plate of water chestnut pudding.

This cool sweet is perfect for afternoon tea, its softly purple and pink surfaces punctuated with crunchy bits of fresh water chestnuts. It’s a lovely way to end a feast, to nibble on as you while away an afternoon over a pot of hot tea, or luxuriate in as a late night snack.

Fresh water chestnuts are increasingly available in better supermarkets, but if they’re not to be found, please don’t resort to canned ones, which I find taste more of the can than they do of water chestnuts. Instead, hunt down a small jicama, a Latin American tuber that is almost as sweet and crunchy as water chestnuts.

Water chestnut flour is available in most Chinese markets and can be purchased online if you aren’t popping down to Chinatown anytime soon. Just be sure and crush the flour in a food processor or blender, as it tends to have a crumbly texture right out of the box. I like to add a bit of red food coloring to one layer of this pudding, as it makes it look even more enticing, but it’s not a deal breaker.

Get the real deal

Water chestnut pudding
Mǎtí gāo 馬蹄糕
Serves 6 to 8 easily as a dessert

½ cup water                            
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter or shortening
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup water chestnut flour
1¼ cups cold water

2 cups julienned, peeled fresh water chestnuts (about 16), or finely chopped peeled jicama
2 drops red food coloring, optional

1. Grease a heatproof pan (square or round) that’s 8 or 9 inches across. Prepare a steamer that easily holds this pan.

2. Place the ½ cup water, sugar, butter or shortening, and salt into a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Whirl the water chestnut flour in a food processor until it’s very fine. With the machine running, add the water to the flour to form a thick paste. Pour this paste into the saucepan and stir everything together over medium heat until a thick, bubbly batter has formed.

3. Add the water chestnuts or jicama to the batter and then (if you’re using the food coloring) pour half of the batter into the pan, steam the pudding for 5 minutes to set it, add the food coloring to the remaining batter, and pour it over the set layer before steaming it for another 30 minutes. If you’re not using food coloring, pour all of the batter into the pan and steam it for 30 minutes.
One gorgeous dessert

4. Remove the pan from the steamer and let it cool. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and chill it for at least an hour. Cut the pudding into diamond shapes or squares and serve cold. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator in a covered container for a few days.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The satay sauce of Chaozhou

Chaozhou is considered by most Chinese culinary experts to be one of Guangdong's three main cuisines, in addition to the dishes of the Hakka and, of course, the foods that are more typically Cantonese. But other than the fact that Chaozhou is located in the upper section of Guangdong province, that's pretty much where the similarities end, for just like Hakka cooking, this is more a case of geographic proximity than stylistic resemblances.

As Chinese food writer Tang Zhenchang wrote in his Yongsun ji (Breakfast and supper journal), "Chaozhou cooking is not one of the Eight Great Cuisines, probably because it was assumed that Chaozhou cooking could be categorized with Guangdong cuisine. This also is not correct; generally speaking Cantonese cuisine cannot encompass the special characteristics of Chaozhou cuisine, something that that all diners know."

L to R: Veggie, original, & numbing-spicy
One of the main things that sets Chaozhou cuisine apart from the rest of Guangdong's cooking its marvelous shachajiang, or satay sauce. And although it bears the same name as the famous Indonesian sauce, Chaozhou's satay is completely different. Here it is a pungent and thoroughly addictive combination of dried shrimp, garlic, shallots, chilies, and dried fish. (Vegetarians can also enjoy this sauce, for meatless versions are available; these will usually have a Buddhist swastika on them.)

This satay is often used, as here, with another sauce that shows evidence of Southeast Asian influences: fish sauce, which for some reason is often referred to as "shrimp oil" (xiayou) in Chinese. These two come together to offer a delicious funkiness to the dishes of Chaozhou, but it remains a subtle undercurrent that beguiles the tongue and amplifies the freshness of the other ingredients. 

Satay sauce can also be used as a base for some delicious soups, as part of complex dipping sauces for meats and vegetables, and as a component in grilling sauces, but it is almost always first fried to release its fragrance and shrug off any canned aromas. In fact, it's this preliminary frying that gives depth and soul to satay dishes, elevating them into something pretty much approaching the sublime.

Torn oyster mushrooms
A couple notes about the vegetables here. First, I've added oyster mushrooms to the mix since I like the juiciness and extra layer of flavor they provide. So, if you're a vegetarian, you can use all mushrooms here instead of the beef. Do note the way that the mushrooms are prepped: they are torn down the length into long strips, rather than sliced, which gives them more of a "meaty" texture and helps keep them from falling apart.

Celery provides a really delicious herbal note here, as well as a nice crunch. You'll see that I've recommended a deep green celery because that's the kind that has all of the flavor; pale celery is rather bland. And if you can find it, Chinese celery is terrific here since it has an even more pronounced flavor than the Western kind. Finally, mung (green bean) sprouts lighten up the dish so that it doesn't become too intense from all of the sauce's strong flavors. 

Bean sprouts can be a bit of a pain because they seem to self-destruct within minutes of getting them home. The secret to keeping your sprouts happy is to submerge them in cool water and store them in the fridge as soon as you can. Change the water every day and use them as soon as humanly possible. They won't last forever, but this does eke a couple of more moments out of their limited lifespan.

Coat the beef
You'll notice that I have you cook the beef, vegetables, and sauce separately. Feel free to just scoot the beef and vegetables up the side of the wok if you feel confident enough, and that is what I've done in the picture below. The main thing you want to be sure of is that nothing gets overcooked. Freshness is the hallmark of Chaozhou cooking, so keep the meat tender and the vegetables crisp, and then bind them together at the last second with this savory sauce.

If you want, serve this by itself over rice or in stir-fried fresh rice noodles (hefen) for a simple and delicious meal that will satisfy just about every sense you possess.

Satay steak and bean sprouts 
Yínyá shāchá níuròu 銀芽沙茶牛肉  
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main course

1 pound skirt steak
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 teaspoons light soy sauce

¼ cup Chinese satay sauce (shachajiang), preferably the Niutou (Ox Head) brand from Taiwan
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
¼ cup lightly salted stock
4 teaspoons dark soy sauce

Everything else:
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled
2 or 3 deep green celery stalks (Chinese celery preferred)
1 pound very fresh mung bean sprouts
4 green onions, trimmed
6 ounces oyster mushrooms, optional
10 tablespoons (or so) peanut or vegetable oil, divided

1. Rinse the meat and pat dry with a paper towel. Cut the meat against the grain into ½-inch strips. Place them in a work bowl and toss with the light soy sauce and cornstarch. Allow the meat to marinade while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Mix the sauce ingredients together in a small work bowl.  Taste the sauce and add more sugar, satay sauce, fish sauce, or soy sauce as desired, since there's a wide variety of differences among the various satay and fish sauces. You can also adjust the seasoning at the end.

3. Slice the ginger against the grain into very thin pieces, and then cut these up into thin strips. Wash the celery stalks carefully and trim off both ends; if the strings are tough, then remove them too. Slice the celery crosswise into 2- or 3-inch pieces, and then slice them lengthwise into thin julienne. Rinse the beansprouts and drain thoroughly. Cut the green onions in half lengthwise and then into pieces that are the same length as the cut celery. Clean the mushrooms, if you are using them, and tear them into shreds, starting at the caps and pulling them gently down their stems until they are about the same size as the steak strips.
Scoot up the veggies & boil down the sauce

4. Heat 6 tablespoons of the oil in a wok until the oil smokes, add the ginger, and stir-fry it for a few seconds to release its flavor. Toss in the beef and any of its juices, and stir-fry the beef until most of the pink is gone. Remove the beef to a clean plate or work bowl.

5. Heat the rest of the oil over high heat and add the mushrooms. Stir-fry them until they are lightly browned all over, and then toss in the celery for a few seconds to take off the raw edge. Add the bean sprouts and just barely cooked - you do not want to have them anything other than crisp, so be careful. Remove the vegetables and add them to the beef.

6. Get the wok hot again and pour in the sauce. Reduce it very quickly until it is syrupy, and then add all of the vegetables and beef to the wok. Quickly toss them all together over high heat to combine, and then serve immediately.