Monday, March 30, 2015

The best egg you've ever eaten

This is simply the perfect egg.

First of all, the whites of the egg are deliciously flavored. A good dousing of Shaoxing rice wine lends a heady sherry and mushroom aroma to the eggs. This is tastefully and tastily countered with an infusion of dried salted plums, ginger, lemon peel, and whole peppercorns that turns this from a one-note wonder into a dish worthy of the most finicky eater. Rarely do egg whites taste of much of anything, but here they serve as the perfectly flavored foil for a yolk that is molten.

Yes, you read that right: the center here is soft and runs like liquid gold, but it's also cooked to just the absolute perfect degree so that while the yolk remains just this side of solid, you won't taste any rawness. Instead, the yolk serves as a delicate sauce for the white that cradles it.

But this dish is not just about flavors and aromas -- it's primarily all about texture.

In most boiled egg recipes, the white is rendered into a relatively reasonable facsimile of a ping-pong ball. Those that aren't tend to look soggy and runny and anything but appetizing. However, the folks in Jiangsu’s capital of Nanjing have turned the practice of cooking an egg into the highest art, for the whites are cooked for a mere 30 seconds, made to sit in the hot water for another three minutes, and then quickly cooled down. What this does is to give the whites the texture of the tenderest custard, and the yolks are sent just barely over that fine line between raw and cooked.

I've experimented with a bunch of different versions, happy to indulge my passion, and after tossing in this and taking out that, this has come to be my favorite way to prepare eggs, period. It isn't too sweet, but also has enough pizazz from the rice wine and dried sour plums and all those seasonings to make me sit up and take notice. You too can play around with the flavorings to your heart's content; just be sure and not use anything with, say, chicken fat or sesame oil, as the eggs should come across as clean and greaseless.

Traditionally this dish is made with fresh duck eggs, but because they are relatively difficult to find in the States, I've substituted large hen eggs; feel free to use whatever type of eggs you like, but do know that you'll have to experiment a bit in order to get the texture the way you want it, since the size of the egg will greatly affect the cooking time. The only caveat I want to make is that the eggs should be organic and free range; the better quality egg you use, the better the result, since this is after all just about one ingredient.   

The eggs are best when they are about a week old in order to make them easier to peel. Bring them to room temperature before cooking in order to a) have the perfect cooking time and b) keep them from bursting. I like to prick the round ends of the eggs with a large tack, since there's a little air pocket in there, and if you give the air an escape route, the whites will be able to swell without breaking the shells.

Salted plums
The only unusual ingredients here are the dried salted plums, called huàméi 話梅. You can find these in just about any Chinese grocery store in the candy aisle. They are very tart and sweet and salty all at the same time, and usually used as a tea snack. 

Drunken eggs with molten centers 
Tángxīn huādiāo zuìdàn 溏心花雕醉蛋
Makes 6 eggs

6 organic, free-range eggs about a week old and at room temperature
1 cup water
7 dried salted plums
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, smashed with the side of a cleaver
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon whole white or black peppercorns
Zest from half a lemon
1 cup Shaoxing rice wine, plus more as needed

1. Use a sharp tack or pin to poke a hole in the round end of the egg; just barely break through the shell without puncturing the inside of the egg.

2. Place the eggs in a small saucepan and cover with cool tap water by about 1 inch. Place the pan uncovered on the stove and bring to a boil stirring the entire time to center the yolk. As soon as the water comes to a full boil, where big bubbles are bursting over the surface, start counting down 30 seconds. At the end of 30 seconds, remove the pan from the heat, cover, and wait exactly 3 minutes. Then, immediately drain the eggs and cover them with cool tap water. Change the water a few times until the water remains cool. Drain the eggs and lightly crack them all over with the back of a spoon, but don't remove the shell.

Ready to enjoy
3. Clean the saucepan and bring the filtered water, dried salted plums, ginger, salt, peppercorns, and lemon zest to a boil; lower the heat to a bare simmer and cook the marinade for around 5 minutes. Allow the marinade to cool to room temperature and add the rice wine.

4. Place the eggs in a tall, narrow container. (This allows the eggs to soak in as little marinade as possible.) Pour the marinade over the eggs, cover, and refrigerate the eggs for a few hours; add more rice wine if needed for the marinade to completely cover the eggs. When the eggs are cold, shell them and return the eggs to the marinade for 24 to 36 hours. If you are not eating them within 36 hours, remove the eggs from the marinade so that they don't get too salty.

5. Serve the eggs as a simple appetizer by slicing them in half and serving on any light and refreshing vegetable, like microgreens or radish shoots or finely shredded leeks. Or, serve them as a summer breakfast on hot toast, with noodles or Congee, or as a midnight snack. It's hard to go wrong with this, the perfect egg.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cookies that taste like an ocean breeze

One of my favorite local cookies when I lived in Taiwan was flavored with sea moss. I know, that doesn't sound like the most tantalizing flavor in the world, but the sea moss brought with it a faint echo of the sea, a salty edge that cut what would have otherwise been the one-note sweetness of a run-of-the-mill packaged cookie. But I'm a confirmed sucker for anything that contrasts two or more tastes, and this cookie fit my nascent foodie predilections to a T.

These cookies can still occasionally be found on this side of the Pacific, but they were never as good as I remembered. Maybe it was just being in Taipei that seasoned these thin wafers, or maybe my palate was changing. Whatever it was, I knew I had to find another way to satisfy my cravings. 

What I ended up with is this, a buttery cookie that really is an unabashed moss green. And in addition to its gorgeous color, the saltiness and delectable aroma of the main ingredient are highlighted with no hesitation here. This is basically a shortbread cookie (there I go showing my Scot roots again), with butter providing the crumbly texture and subtle richness instead of the vegetable shortening in the crispy original, so I call my creation Sea Moss Sandies.

Sea moss
Sea moss, or taitiao (literally, moss strands), is becoming more and more common in Chinese groceries nowadays, so look for it next time you check out an Asian grocery; it will probably be near the dried seaweeds. One 5-ounce package will be the perfect amount for this recipe.

When you open the package, it will look for all the world like you have a couple hanks of green hair. I've found that the best way to deal with this is to toss the whole bunch into a food processor and then pulse away until the sea moss is broken down into little shards. You then can proceed to make the rest of the cookie dough in the processor, so this ends up taking no more than a few minutes to put together and a minimum of fuss.
Serve the cookies with hot green tea, maybe with a side of fruit and an ocean breeze. 

Sea moss sandies 
Táitiào suū  苔條酥
Makes 7 to 8 dozen cookies

1 (5 ounce) package sea moss (taitiao)
2 cups Chinese flour, or 1½ cups all-purpose flour plus ½ cup pastry flour
½ cup powdered sugar, plus more, if desired
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

The crumbly dough
1. Start this recipe at least an hour before you wish to serve the cookies. 

2. Pull the sea moss apart into manageable strands and place them in a food processor equipped with a metal blade. Pulse the sea moss until it has been coarsely chopped. Add the flour and powdered sugar, and then turn the food processor on so that the sea moss becomes finely ground. Add the butter and pulse the mixture until the dough forms a crumbly mass.

3. Divide the dough in two and place each one on a sheet of plastic wrap. Then, form each half into a smooth log a little over an inch in diameter. Wrap the logs in the plastic wrap and either roll them up in Silpat baking sheets or place them in paper towel tubes, as this will help keep the dough's shape. (If you have neither, roll the dough again on a flat board just before cutting it to make it as round as possible.) Freeze the dough for about an hour to make it easier to slice.

4. Heat the oven to 350°F. Cut the dough into ¼-inch slices. Place them about one inch apart on baking sheets lined with Silpat or parchment paper.

Pretty darned exciting, for a cookie
5. Bake the cookies for about 12 to 15 minutes until the edges are golden; rotate the sheets halfway through the baking time. Cool the cookies on the Silpat or parchment paper before removing them. If you wish, dust the cookies with a little more powdered sugar before serving.

6. Store the cookies in an airtight container; freeze for longer storage. They taste best after they have cooled off, as they will be crispier and the sea moss flavor will start to bloom.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A brilliantly simple pickle from Shanghai

Jackson Street in San Francisco's Chinatown used to have a little hole-in-the-wall call the Star Cafe.  

It was my kind of place. Star Cafe was only wide enough to squeeze in the semblance of a kitchen in on the right, run a counter down the middle, and stuff a couple of worn tables and chairs in the back.

The toilet was a creaky affair in the far corner that didn't invite anyone to sit and read the paper, and it was obviously treasured more as a place to stash wet mops, extra to-go boxes, and extra chairs than it was as a restroom.

But what this little dive lacked in refinement, it more than made up for in flavor and price. These folks really were from Shanghai, they cooked what they knew, and we would usually stroll out of there completely stuffed for under ten bucks. Not many places in The City have that type of reputation.

What I really loved there were its Shanghai Mustard Pickles. A huge glass jar of them would be perched in their old cooler, the pickles kept crisp and cold, just the way I wanted them. We'd order a bowl of them to munch on while we perused the menu, and I'd usually commandeer the lion's portion of the pickles before washing them down with a glass of cold, sweetened soybean milk that was also homemade. 

One day when we tromped over there for another meal, we found the doors locked and a sign on them saying the owners were away on a trip to China. That trip turned into years while the storefront stayed empty, and I longed in vain for my pickles, as no one else I knew every offered them. Then, one fine day I ran across a recipe for Mustard Stems Pickled in Sweet Rice Vinegar in the wonderful Bruce Cost book Asian Ingredients. With a little tweaking, his pickles soon turned into the ones in my dreams. (Thanks, Bruce!)

This recipe calls for a Chinese vegetable called - depending upon the grocery store - gay choy, jie cai, or Chinese mustard cabbage. It's a slightly bitter vegetable that's great in a stir-fry with nothing else but lots of ginger and a healthy sprinkling of kosher salt. But it's in this pickle that this variety of mustard greens really shines. That gentle mustardy fragrance and flavor poke their way out from the sweet brine and spices, and they are strong enough to stand up to some brutal treatment, like being salted and having boiling vinegar poured over them. Make up a batch and store it in the refrigerator. If you like sausages, try stir-frying them with sliced onions and this pickle for a piquant and utterly divine dish.

Shanghai mustard pickles 

Tángcù jiècài 糖醋芥菜
Makes about 1 quart

5 medium heads of Chinese mustard cabbage
2 tablespoons sea salt
4 cups sushi vinegar (usually called "seasoned rice vinegar")
8 dried chili peppers
5 crushed cloves of garlic
10 thin slices of ginger
Boiling water, as needed

1. Trim off any flimsy leaves from the mustard cabbage and reserve them for some other use. Cut the stems into 2- to 3-inch lengths and then cut each length into pieces no more than 1/2 an inch wide. Rinse the mustard cabbage carefully, shake dry, and place it in a colander. Sprinkle the salt over the vegetables, lightly rub the salt in, and let them sit for an hour or so to remove most of the excess water.

2. Clean a quart-sized glass jar and lid, making sure that there's no oil or soap residue in there, as this could cause the pickles to mold. Rinse the jar and lid with boiling water and turn them upside-down to drain.

3. Bring the vinegar to a boil in a medium saucepan along with the peppers, garlic, and ginger; let the brine simmer for a few minutes. Shake the excess salt and water off of the mustard cabbage and place it in the glass jar. Pour the boiling brine over the vegetables and toss them lightly; add a bit of boiling water so that it almost reaches the top of the vegetables. Stir the vegetables every 5 minutes or so as they cool so that all of them turn from an emerald green to an olive shade. As they turn color, they'll shrink, and the brine should soon cover the vegetables. Add a bit more water as needed to keep the vegetables submerged.

4. When the jar is cool, refrigerate it for at least two days. Use a very clean pair of chopsticks or fork to remove the pickles. They'll last at least a month if kept clean and cold.

Illustration from ALL UNDER HEAVEN (McSweeney's, 2015)
Copyright 2015, Carolyn Phillips

Monday, March 9, 2015

A delicious postcard from Chaozhou

Chaozhou is rarely considered one of the great cuisines of China, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why. It's also relatively unknown, which I find even more insane, considering how this is probably the home of some of the best seafood in the world. 

It is so good that even though Hong Kong's cuisine is nothing short of spectacular, back when I was still a student and would head for Hong Kong for my vacations, I would always hunt out their best Chaozhou restaurants in order to devour some of the most perfectly fried oysters and steamed fish that have ever left a chef's kitchen.

Angled silk gourds
Chaozhou (aka Teochew or Chiuchow) is located in the northeastern reaches of Guangdong province, just a stone or two's throw from Fujian, and bordering the areas where the Hakka people call home. One bite of this food and you'll taste all of these influences... or it could be that you are tasting Chaozhou's remarkable flavors in the dishes of its neighbors. I could easily wax ecstatic for hours over the food of this area that is so dominated by the sea that its Chinese name means "land of the tides," or 潮州. 

It is understandable, then, that most Chinese folks think of seafood when Chaozhou is mentioned, and we certainly will continue to stroll through some of their more delicious fish and crustacean dishes in this blog, but today I wanted to introduce a vegetable that seems to have received more serious attention in Chaozhou than anyplace else: silk gourds.

One variety of the silk gourds is most commonly known in the West in its dried form, where only the fibrous interior remains: loofah (or luffa) sponges.  But when these squashes are still tender, they are absolutely delicious and are wonderful simply stir-fried with little more than a bit of garlic, salt, and rice wine to bring out their natural sweetness. 

(By the way, they’re not really gourds, but the Chinese character gua got translated into “melon,” “squash,” or “gourd” pretty much on some translator’s whim many, many years ago, so don’t take any of these three translations too seriously. And someone else got into the act and started calling silk gourds "Chinese okra," which just makes a confusing situation even more of a mess.)

Fried 'til crispy
These squashes come in two forms: smooth and ridged. The smooth ones, or loofah, seem to have a shorter growing period around here and are most usually found in summer. The ridged ones, sometimes called shenggua 勝瓜 in Chinese and "angled gourds" in English, are often displayed in Chinese groceries pretty much year around. 

These two varieties taste identical as far as I’m concerned, and they receive the same treatment: just before cooking them, they are peeled, the ends are cut off, and the meat is cut into whatever shape required. However, the squash does turn dark very quickly in the same way that eggplant does, so prepare them only a few minutes before they’re to be thrown into the pan, or else steam or microwave or parboil them in order to keep them white. 

In Chaozhou, silk gourds are given a special treatment that I haven’t seen anywhere else, which is that they are fried into crêpes with a handful of tasty condiments that play havoc with your taste buds.  Fried peanuts and dried salted radish bits are tossed with thin slices of the squash and then mixed into a simple crepe batter that is then fried until golden.  This is terrific as is, but if you don’t have access to silk gourds, peeled zucchini or other summer squash will yield almost as good a dish as the original.

The frying of the sliced squash is rather tedious since there is so much of it that you need to do it in many batches, so use the largest frying pan that you have (or two, if you can juggle it), and work on prepping the rest of your ingredients while the squash is frying away.  Then, use a smaller pan - about 7 inches in diameter - to fry the crepes.

Crispy silk gourd crêpes 
Cuìzhá sīguā jiān  脆炸絲瓜煎 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multi-course meal
The ingredients

4 small or 2 large silk gourds (between 2½ and 3 pounds total), or about 20 ounces summer squash
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying
¼ cup salted, dried radish (caipu 菜脯), preferably already chopped (see Tip)
½ cup fried peanuts
½ cup sweet potato flour (best), or cornstarch if you absolutely can't find sweet potato flour
2 large eggs
½ cup cool water, or as needed
6 Chinese chives or 2 green onions, sliced thinly
2 teaspoons fish sauce (or light soy sauce if you want this to be vegetarian)
4 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
Freshly ground pepper
A small sprinkle of salt
Small amount of cilantro, chopped, for garnish

1. Peel the silk gourd and remove the seeds if they are at all tough, as well as the stem and flower ends. Pour about 3 tablespoons of the oil in the largest flat frying pan you have and heat it over medium-high heat. Slice the squash thinly, and place one layer of the slices into the hot oil. Fry both sides of the squash until golden (adding more oil as needed) and remove to a small work bowl; repeat with the rest of the squash until all of it has been fried. You should end up with about 2 cups cooked squash.

2. Rinse the salted radish in a sieve and shake it dry. Chop the peanuts until they are in small pieces (less than ¼ inch across), which should be about the same size as the chopped salted radish. Mix the sweet potato flour with the egg and the water to form a batter with the consistency of heavy cream. Add the peanuts, radish, and fried squash to the batter, as well as the green onion, fish sauce, sugar, roasted sesame oil, and pepper. 

3. Heat about 3 tablespoons of the oil in a 7-inch flat frying pan over medium-high heat until a couple drops of the batter immediately sizzle and start to brown. Ladle a quarter of the batter into the pan so that it completely covers the bottom. Shake the pan after about 20 seconds to loosen the crêpe, and then turn it over when the underside is a golden brown; if you are a bit nervous about flipping the crêpe, slide it onto a plate with the raw side up and then flip the plate over onto the frying pan.  

4. Brown the other side and remove the cooked crêpe to a clean cutting board. (If you are like me and prefer the crêpe to have more crisp exterior, feel free to fry both sides until they are a dark brown; the texture will be most noticeable once the crêpes cool off a bit.) Repeat this with the rest of the batter until all of it has been fried. (The crêpes can be made ahead of time up to this point and reheated in a 325 degree F oven until crispy right before serving.)

5. Slice the crêpes into 4 to 6 wedges each and serve garnished with the cilantro. 


Salted radish is often translated as "salted turnip" on the package.

Get the Vietnamese fish sauce with the pink label and three blue crabs on it. I've used that for decades, and it's always good.