Monday, November 23, 2015

Longan tea with fresh ginger

Winter in Chinese cooking calls for warm things, and that is what today’s recipe is all about. Whenever we get the chills or feel like a cold is coming on, or even if we just want to warm up our toes, I make a pot of Longan Tea. 

This is the traditional Chinese way of using food as homemade medicine – chicken soup is Mom's penicillin the world over, it seems. Today's recipe is like that, but also much simpler and very, very tasty. Both the fruit and the ginger in this recipe are considered warming and good for the blood, and so new mothers are encouraged to enjoy bowls of it and other nutritious meals during their month of recovery. This wonderful custom is called "a month of sitting" (zuòyuèzi 坐月子) because folks like her mother, mother-in-law, aunties, and other female relatives are supposed to wait on her hand and foot.

The fleshy & aromatic fresh fruit
The main ingredient in this recipe is the dried fruit known as longan, which is sort of a corruption of the Cantonese name for this fruit, lung4 ngaan5 眼. In Mandarin, it’s called lóngyăn, which literally means “dragon eyes.” (Why don’t we have such cool names for our fruit in English?) In North China, this tropical fruit has traditionally only been available dried, and there they are sold as guìyuán 桂圓.

Longans are sold fresh at the end of summer and mark the end of the lychee season. They look a bit like lychees (or litchis) in that they have a white flesh, hard brown pit, a thin leathery shell, grow in clusters, and come from the tropics. But the flavor, texture, and moisture content are completely different. While lychees are really fleshy, juicy, and have a light, almost sparkling juice, longans have a thinner, drier flesh that is deeply perfumed.

Fresh longans
Unlike lychees, longans are almost always sold dried, and they are beloved throughout most of China. In a way they are much like raisins or dried prunes, as their rich flavor is used to season many dishes. They are especially popular in winter sweets, like this sweet soup and such other cold-weather delights as Twelfth Month Congee.

I adore this dried fruit, and when I can find packages of this year's freshly dried longans, I snack on them as is or mixed with other dried fruits, like wolfberries, raisins, and so forth. I sometimes even add walnuts or almonds to lend a bit of crunch. Think of this as Chinese trail mix.

Fresh lychees
You can find pitted longans in the dried fruit aisle of most Chinese supermarkets, as well as at herbal medicine and dry goods stores. Look for bags with plump brown balls that are as soft as raisins when you press them. Older ones will be hard - and that's okay for recipes like today's - but make sure that there's no insect damage or droppings by checking out the detritus at the bottom of the bag. Store these in a closed jar in the pantry, or even freeze the bag if you want to keep them for a longer time. I've also seen these compressed into little squares when they have been processed in Southeast Asia - these are perfectly fine, especially after they've been allowed to plump up in some hot water.

The mercury around here has finally decided to drop a bit, so I've pulled out my jar of dried longans from last year. They are a bit dry and shriveled, but again, since they're going to be popped into boiling water, their condition at this point doesn't matter a whole lot. 

This kind of thin, simple soup is called a "tea" in Chinese, and you actually can enjoy it as such by straining out the solids. But I'm a sucker for those plump fruits and so always serve this steaming hot in small soup bowls, either at breakfast or as a midnight snack. Adjust the amount of ginger and sugar in here to suit your palate. The following recipe is my personal favorite, but tinker with it to make it your own. For new moms I'd add some dried red dates to up the nutritional factor even more. 

Longan tea with fresh ginger
Lóngyǎn jiāng chá 龍眼薑茶 or guìyuán jiāng chá 桂圓薑茶
All over China
Makes around 8 servings

1 cup (or so) dried pitted and peeled longans
8 cups water
1 tablespoon finely shredded peeled ginger
Brown sugar, agave syrup, or honey to taste, optional

Ginger and dried longans
1. Rinse the longans in a sieve and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover them with the water and bring it to a full boil. 

2. Reduce the heat to low, add the ginger, and slowly simmer the longans for about 30 minutes. Taste and add some sweetener, if you like. Serve this hot, although you can store it in the fridge for a couple of days before serving - as with almost all soups, it tastes even better that way.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Luscious Hakka-style ribs

I was sorting out my pantry yesterday and came across a huge cache of the pale green mustard greens called meicai, or “plum vegetable.” It was like Christmas had arrived early for me, and I knew exactly what I wanted to have for Sunday dinner.

As we’ve discussed earlier, there are two types of meicai: the chunky pastel heads of mustard that hail from Hakka territory (called Huìzhõu méicài 惠州梅菜) and the dark, deeply seasoned, and chopped variety from Shaoxing in Zhejiang province (Shàoxīng méicài 紹興梅菜). Both are absolutely delicious and for some reason rarely available in Chinese restaurants around here, so I’ve come to hoard them away for whenever I get this particular craving.
Split heads of Hakka meicai

Hakka-style meicai generally is sold out of open cardboard boxes on old Chinatown streets, its salt-flecked leaves beckoning you to grab some. You can also find it in Chinese supermarkets, where it will usually be vacuum-packed in plastic bags, with a brine substituted for the loose salt. Either way is good, but the packaged ones taste less salty. Adjust the seasoning accordingly.

We used to eat rich pork and chicken dishes seasoned with these cured mustard stems at a place called “Overpass Restaurant” (Tianqiao fandian) near the government center in Taipei. It was staffed by a cluster of grumpy old Hakka men who seemed to never really care whether there were customers in the place. Food steamed away on a huge stainless steel box by the front door, and the threadbare décor could best be described as Tenderloin on a Bad Day. But my husband adored that place because it offered the kind of dishes his father excelled at creating.
Hakka meicai

A small, ancient crock of chicken soup would invariably be ordered, its top coated with an inch-thick layer of chicken fat. Underneath would lie a whacked up chicken seasoned with ginger, green onions, salt, and whatever coated the inside of those ancient crocks. The bird itself was so tender it would fall apart with the most delicate nudge, and all of its juices had long ago been surrendered to the soup, so the meat and skin acted more as sponges for all of those homey flavors.

I would always vote for some sort of pork dish, preferably with meicai, and this could be the more common pork belly, but I’ve always had a deep love for ribs. Something about its combination of meat, tendons, and fat makes this one of the most remarkable cuts of all, and if it happens to be seasoned with meicai, well, life doesn’t get much better.
Divvy up the ribs

This recipe is absolutely packed with flavor. It has all of the Hakka ingredients that I love: fresh pork, preserved vegetables of some sort, and a rich, dark seasoning. The coating I prefer for most Hakka and Southern Fujian recipes is sweet potato starch, which supplies a nubbly surface to the meats and turns into a delicately chewy coating as it steams. We have nothing like it in the West, so pick up a bag next time you are in a Chinese market. It’s the perfect breading for fried chicken Taiwanese style, too: just marinate the chicken, coat it like the pork here, and you’re ready to go.

Do note that I have used whole ribs here, which is a bit wrong, I admit, but I picked up this meat at Trader Joe’s, which doesn’t offer to cut up meats for their customers. And, I don’t happen to have a band saw in my kitchen, so I reasoned that this was more a matter of aesthetics than anything else. It definitely doesn't change the flavor one whit.
Sweet potato starch

If you can get your butcher to cut up the ribs for you, great. If not, these still will send you to heaven and back again.

Steamed ribs and meicai Hakka style
Kèjiā méicài zhēng páigǔ 客家梅菜蒸排骨
Serves 6
1 side of trimmed pork ribs, about 2½ pounds
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ cup mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
¼ cup sweet potato starch or cornstarch, plus more as needed
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil
Fry up the ribs

The rest:
14 (or so) ounces Hakka-style meicai (preserved mustard greens)
Warm water, as needed
¼ cup thinly sliced fresh ginger
1 bunch green onions (around 6), trimmed with both the whites and greens cut into ½ inch pieces; reserve the greens of 1 onion for a garnish
¼ cup mild rice wine
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1. At least 4 hours before you plan to serve this, start by cutting up and marinating the meat. You can use whole ribs or have your butcher cut them crosswise into small (2-inch) pieces. Cut the ribs between the bones so that each piece is surrounded with meat. Place these in a large resealable plastic bag and toss them with the soy sauce, peppercorns, and rice wine. Close the bag and keep it in a cool place, squishing the meat in the marinade now and then, so that the ribs become fully seasoned. Marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to a day or so. A longer marinade will give you a much more flavorful dish.

Remove the cores
2. While the meat is marinating, rinse the meicai in warm water to dislodge any sand. I usually do this in a bowl so that I can see any grains that settle on the bottom. When the vegetable is clean, rinse it once again. Gently squeeze the meicai dry and cut out any cores at the base. Slice the vegetable crosswise into ½ inch or so pieces. Then, soak it in warm water for around 30 minutes to soften it up a bit and release the extra salt. Drain the meicai, squeeze it dry with your hands, and refrigerate it if you are not using it within an hour or two.

3. Have a steamer set up and a heatproof bowl that can fit easily inside it.

Nubbly surface from the special starch
4. Pluck the ribs out of the marinade (most of which will have been absorbed, but reserve any that remains for Step 5) and place them in a large work bowl. Add the starch and toss so that each piece is evenly coated, adding more starch as needed. Place a wok over high heat, and when the iron is hot, pour in the oil. Swirl the oil around to coat the bottom of the wok, and when a chopstick inserted in the oil bubbles all over, carefully add some of the ribs to the hot oil so that you don’t get splashed – I find that the best way to do this is to use chopsticks and gently slide them into the oil from less than an inch away. Add only as many ribs as will fit loosely into the oil so that they fry quickly and do not stick. As the ribs turn golden brown, remove them to the heatproof bowl. Repeat with the rest of the ribs until they are all browned. Discard any leftover starch and strain the oil into a small, heatproof bowl.

5. Pour the strained oil back into the wok, place it over high heat, and add the ginger and all of the onions, except for the garnish. Toss these around for a minute to release their fragrance before adding the meicai to the wok. Continue to toss these until the vegetables are dry and the ginger is starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the reserved marinade and the rest of the seasonings and stir-fry the greens until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed, and then pile this on top of the ribs.
Fry the vegetables

6. Cover the bowl with foil and steam over high heat for around 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender. Add more water to the steamer as needed. (This dish can be made ahead of time and steamed for another 30 minutes to heat it up, which will only improve the flavor.)

7. Just before serving, remove the foil, pour out the juices into a heatproof cup, and invert the bowl onto a rimmed plate. You can defat the juices and drizzle them over the top along with chopped onion greens, or just save it for later. Serve with a stir-fried green vegetable like bok choy and lots of hot rice or steamed bread.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Mouthwatering chicken + ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns

Leftover roast or poached chicken is a gift from the food gods, as far as I'm concerned. 

In fact, I will go out of my way to ensure that there is a nicely cooked bird sitting in my fridge whenever it looks like my schedule is going to go nuts, as then I'm not as liable to eat out in hastily selected restaurants and therefore waste both money and valuable appetite space. Once you try this dish, you'll understand my hesitation to splurge on foods that are not half as brilliant as this Sichuan classic from Chongqing.

Basically, all you need is leftover cooked chicken that will be topped with standard Sichuan-style condiments. This can be something from a Chinese deli, or a bird you cooked yourself, or even a couple of frozen breasts that you poached and let cool. As long as it is of good quality (read: free range and healthy, with a modicum of attention paid to the preparation), you're going to have a great meal.

My personal lifesaver

Like the recipe for leftovers in last week's post, this is an exercise in simplicity. It even calls for many of the same ingredients, so you can see how this will easily become a go-to recipe. Plus, if the chicken's ready, you can pull dinner together in a snap. Ideal.

And if there are skin and bones (please, let there always be skin and bones), make a small pot of roasted bone broth to accompany your meal: just remove the meat from the carcass and pop the bones and skin into a small pan. Heat it in a 375°F oven until everything is brown. Sauté some sliced ginger, green onions, and garlic until golden, add the roasted bones and a splash of rice wine, and then cover them with boiling water or (even better) a box of ready-made chicken stock. Bring the pot back to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook for 30 to 60 minutes, or until it tastes good to you. Season to taste with sea salt and strain out the solids.

Okay, now that the soup is done, let's return to this dish, which is called Mouthwatering Chicken in Chinese. (I know, it literally means "saliva chicken," but we're not going there.) Traditionally this is served as a refreshing appetizer or cool summertime entree. Most restaurants serve this as a chilled poached chicken dish, but nothing is stopping you from making whatever sort of leftover bird you have on your hands nothing short of fabulous.   

Easy & oh so delicious

It's the sauce that turns this into a genuine Chongqing classic: an exciting combination of spicy, sweet, tart, nutty, and savory flavors compete for attention against an abundance of aromatics, and that is what makes this sauce so, well, mouthwatering.

Do note that this is perfect as a leftover chicken dish: You can use has much or as little meat as you want or have. And if you happen to have lots of people to feed, then just put a nice pile of julienned cucumbers and/or coarsely chopped cilantro underneath the bird, and it will turn into an even better dish. You just can't lose here.

I love to have this on hand when a big dinner looms on the horizon because the elements come together so easily. But then again, when it's just the two of us, I often make this into a casual meal of a green salad topped with the chicken, sauce, and nuts. You just can't go wrong with this, the perfect answer to "what's for dinner?"

Mouthwatering chicken

Kŏushuĭ jī 口水雞
Serves 4 as an appetizer or as a main course salad


1 whole cooked chicken, or 5 or 6 raw chicken thighs, or a couple of breasts (or, to be honest, whatever you have will be fine)

Sauce (make double if you're doing a salad):
½ teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns (see the recipe below)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon mild rice wine
1 tablespoon pale rice vinegar
1 tablespoon black vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger

2 green onions, trimmed
¼ cup toasted peanuts (or whatever nuts or seeds you like - I've used toasted sunflower seeds from Trader Joe's here, for example), chopped if they're larger than, say, a pine nut
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

3 or 4 seedless cucumbers 
A bunch of very sprightly cilantro
A quart or so of lettuce
More nuts

Shred the chicken & onions
1. If you are making the chicken from scratch, bone and skin the chicken. Place the chicken meat in a pan, cover with water, and bring it to a boil. Simmer for about 7 minutes, remove the pan from the heat, take out the chicken, and let it come to room temperature. Shred the chicken by tearing it into thin strips, and then chill it. If you are using chicken that's already been cooked, simply remove the meat from the bones and shred it with the grain into bite-sized strips that still maintain their integrity and chewiness.

2. Heat the sauce ingredients together in a pan or wok until they boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.

3. Shred the onions into very fine strips. Toss the chicken with the julienned onions and pile this into a serving bowl or rimmed plate. Pour the hot sauce over the chicken and sprinkle the peanuts and sesame seeds on top.

4. If you want to turn this into an amazing salad, combine some shredded or sliced cucumbers with lightly chopped cilantro and whatever lettuces you like. You don't need to dress these first, as the nutty sauce will do the job. Top the salad with the chicken and all of the sauce, and then toss at the table. Sprinkle with more nuts, if you're feeling in the mood.

A must-have in my kitchen
A Master Recipe!
Toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns
Huājiāo fěn 花椒粉 or huājiāo miàn 花椒麵
Sichuan and all the Central Highlands
Makes a few tablespoons; can be multiplied easily

Sichuan peppercorns are a basic seasoning throughout many parts of China. Whole peppercorns are added to many spice mixtures, especially for braises, but my favorite way of using them is when they’re toasted and finely ground into a powder. Preparing them this way allows them to supply a sensuously piney layer to a dish as it is cooked, and when they’re sprinkled on as a final touch in dishes
like today's Mouthwatering Chicken, the numbing properties of these peppercorns will fully blossom on the lips and tongue.

Toasting both heightens and softens the peppercorns’ flavor, elevating the aromas of this spice while mellowing out their bitterness. I always have a jar of these next to the stove. If you don’t use them that often, then toast only a small amount of the peppercorns so that the volatile oils don’t dissipate.
This is all you need here

¼ cup Sichuan peppercorns

1. Pour the peppercorns into a dry wok and stir them over medium heat until the seeds start to pop and send out fine tendrils of fragrant smoke. Remove the wok from the heat and pour the peppercorns into a small work bowl to cool off.

2. When the peppercorns are at room temperature, grind them finely with a spice grinder or mini-blender. You want them as fine as possible, since the seeds are very hard and can be unpleasant to crunch down on. I like to shake the powder through a fine sieve just to be sure that no surprises await my molars.

3. Pour the ground peppercorns into a jar and keep them in a cool, dark place. Making these in small batches ensures that their perfume is ready when you are. If the peppercorns don't smell delicious when you open up the jar, it's time to make a new batch.

Whole & ground Sichuan peppercorns