Monday, September 29, 2014

Pure yum from Shanghai

Leaves are turning yellow, clouds threaten rain, and the garden looks like it is about ready to take a long nap. It must be autumn. As the weather starts to take on a distinctly chilly edge, my thoughts turn to my favorite warming foods, dishes that welcome the shorter days and make me want to have dinner earlier than scheduled. Today's recipe is just that sort of a meal.

One of the true delights of homestyle cooking along the Yangtze is its ability to comfort the soul as well as the stomach. In this dish, for example, is a luscious combination of super-tender cabbage threads seasoned with a bit of pork, and while that might not sound like much, the results are incomparable.
Its Chinese name calls to mind the English dish “mushy peas,” for lanhu rousi literally means “soft mush pork threads.” But just as the British love their peas, the people near Shanghai adore this. It is simplicity itself: finely shredded napa cabbage is slowly cooked in chicken stock until it turns soft and silky, with shreds of pork and ginger offering a touch of texture and flavor.

I have changed up the recipe a bit, since I have tossed the raw pork with pink salt. This lends the pork a bit more personality, turning it a pretty rosy hue that contrasts with the glossy gold of the cabbage. It also creates more of a hammy flavor, and I love how these little bits then shimmer against the soft cosset of vegetables, rather than simply float in the background.
Boring gets a makeover
This serves four as part of a larger dinner, but to be honest, I could easily devour this all by myself. So, if you are offering only one more dish, I’d count on this serving two people at the most, but it is easily multiplied. The amount of cabbage will probably terrify you as you slice it up, but I promise that it will cook down quickly into a sweet, porridge-like puddle with savory notes from the chicken and pork. It’s heavenly.

Creamy cabbage with shredded pork
Lànhú ròusī   爛糊肉絲
Serves 4

2 (or so) ounces lean boneless pork
½ teaspoon sea salt
A pinch of pink (curing) salt, optional

1 head of napa cabbage, between 1 and 1½ pounds
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely shredded ginger
2 cups unsalted chicken stock 
¼ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons cool water

Shanghai comfort food
1. Rinse the pork and pat it dry. Cut it across the grain into thin pieces, and then slice these into thin strips. Place the pork in a small work bowl and toss with the two salts. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the pork for a couple of hours to allow the pink salt time to work its magic and give the meat a hammy flavor and rosy hue.

2. Clean and core the cabbage, shake it dry, and cut it against the grain into a thin julienne. Just before you start to cook, rinse the pork thoroughly in a colander to wash off all of the pink salt. Shake the pork dry and empty it onto a paper towel to wick up any remaining moisture.

3. Place a wok over high heat and swirl in the oil once it gets hot. Add the ginger and toast it quickly in the oil to release its fragrance. Sprinkle in the pork shreds and then toss the pork over the heat until it has turned white. Scrape the pork and ginger out into a clean work bowl, leaving as much of the oil in the wok as possible.

4. Return the wok to high heat and add the cabbage. Toss the cabbage until it has wilted. Stir in the pork, stock, salt as needed, and sugar, and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook this uncovered for around 20 minutes, or until the cabbage is very tender. Dribble the cornstarch mixture around the edge of the cabbage and then mix it in thoroughly by swirling the wok around. When the sauce has thickened and turns glossy, taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour the cabbage onto a rimmed plate or into a bowl. Serve hot.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Wanna test some recipes for McSweeney's and me?

This just out from the great minds behind McSweeney's: 

In the spring of 2015, McSweeney’s Insatiables, publisher of the beloved cookbooks Mission Street Food and Toro Bravo, will release its third cookbook, All Under Heaven

Carolyn Phillips’ encyclopedic survey of Chinese food is nearing completion, and we would love your help testing its excellent recipes. 

You’ll get an exclusive preview of a recipe from the book, a coupon for a preorder discount, and you’ll provide us with essential feedback to make sure no errors sneak by us and ruin your next dinner party. We’ll also post your pictures of the process and the finished recipe to this website. To participate enter your email, and we’ll get in touch with simple instructions. Cooks of all experience levels are welcome, and we can accommodate any dietary restrictions.

Vaulting from ancient taverns near the Yangtze River to banquet halls in modern Taipei, All Under Heaven offers a comprehensive, contemporary portrait of China’s culinary landscape and the geography and history that has shaped it. With dozens of recipes and lucid, set-by-step instructions, this is the first cookbook in English to examine all thirty-five cuisines of China. 

Drawing on centuries’ worth of culinary texts, as well as her own years working, eating, and cooking in Taiwan, Carolyn Phillips has written a spirited, symphonic love letter to the flavors and textures she fell in love with over thirty years ago. From simple fried green onion noodles to Lotus-wrapped Spicy Rice Crumb Pork, All Under Heaven serves as both a handbook for the novice and a source of inspiration for the veteran chef.

Featuring illustrations on almost every page and hand-drawn maps of each culinary region, All Under Heaven is an essential reference for anyone interested in the cuisine and culinary history of China. Whether covering street food, banquet dishes, homemade drinks, or sweets, All Under Heaven is the first cookbook to do full justice to the startling diversity and ingenuity of Chinese cuisine.

Text copyright (c) McSweeney's, 2014
All illustrations copyright (c) Carolyn Phillips, 2014
All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 15, 2014

Utterly delicious steam-fried buns from Shandong

When I was a student in Taipei back in the late 70’s, I became somewhat of a connoisseur of street foods and snacks. 

As I got to know the city better, I discovered that tiny restaurants had been carved out of little spaces between shops in the downtown area’s side streets and alleys, and, in my humble opinion, this was where most of the best eating was to be found. These foods were always simple, just a few specialties of the house, and so they were usually things that had been made day-in day-out for decades by the same folks. They had their recipes down pat, and it showed.

Shandong delight
These lovely snacks called shuijian bao were on my regular Must Eat menu and are beloved in their native Shandong, as well as in Beijing and Shanghai. The filling is always meat - and usually pork - flavored with ginger, green onions, and other seasonings. Also, the bread wrapper is thinner than that of most baozi, is slightly chewier, and it boasts a toasty golden bottom. Crispy on the bottom, soft on top, and juicy in the center, these are marvels. I figured that they were little more than baozi that had been pan-fried, but, as I tried over the years to re-create them, I discovered that a secret was involved. 

A sweet old gentleman from Shandong's capital city of Jinan (if I remember correctly) made my favorites. He ran his own little hole in the wall as a one man operation, wrapping the baozi, steam-frying them, selling them, bussing the tables, and doing the washing up all by himself. He sold nothing but shuijian bao, and he must have amassed a mint over the years, because his were the best and he had a steady stream of happy customers. Goodness knows what he did with the money because the greasy spots on his walls never changed, but no one cared - we were just there for the food.
Crunchy, toasty bottoms

His freshly-wrapped baozi were placed on a round, oil-slicked iron griddle that had probably been around since the day he started the business, so big and black and shiny that nothing ever stuck to it. He’d pour boiling water from an aluminum tea kettle over the buns, slap a tall lid over them, and let them steam until a steady crackling sound informed him that it was time to remove the cover. The bottoms of the baozi would then fry to an aromatic crust, and I would be standing there with all his other fans, cash in hand, ready to snag them the moment they left the griddle.

It took me many years to figure out the secret, because every recipe I’ve tried called for regular steamed bread dough, and this always left a sticky, undercooked pocket at the top. I tried adjusting the heat, reducing the size of the shuijian bao, increasing the steaming time and water, and so forth, but nothing worked.

And then enlightenment happened: I made hot-water dough — just like for steamed jiaozi — and added a yeast mixture to that. Perfection first time around. What happens is that the flour becomes partially cooked, and so the steam just needs to puff it up a bit. That, my friends, is the secret.

Make extra and freeze them. They go very fast.

Steamed-fried buns
Shuǐjiān bāo 水煎包
Shandong, Beijing, and Shanghai
Makes 24 baozi

3 cups Chinese flour (or 2 cups all-purpose and 1 cup pastry)
2 cups boiling water
2 teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
cup warm water
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (or so) Chinese flour for kneading and shaping

2 small bundles cellophane noodles (fensi)
Warm water, as needed
1½ pounds ground pork (15% fat) or dark turkey meat, chilled
1½ cups chopped green onions
6 tablespoons finely minced ginger
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup mild rice wine
1½ teaspoons sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1½ tablespoons cornstarch

Spray oil
Oil for frying
Boiling water, as needed

1. Make the wrappers according to the directions for steamed breads through Step 2. Divide the dough into 24 even pieces, roll these into balls, and flatten them. Make 4-inch baozi wrappers by flattening the balls and then rolling the discs out from the center toward the edge, which will leave a little bump in the center. Cover the wrappers with a damp towel or plastic wrap.

Fensi with meat
2. Soak the cellophane noodles in the warm water for around 10 minutes, or until they are soft and pliable. Drain the noodles well and then chop them very finely.

3. In a medium work bowl, mix the chopped cellophane noodles with the rest of the filling ingredients. Stir the filling in one direction until the meat is light, fluffy, and a bit sticky. The filling can be covered and chilled if you are not using it right away. Divide the filling into 24 even pieces and roll these into balls.

Make baozi
4. Lightly grease a baking sheet with spray oil. Working on one baozi at a time, place a ball of filling in the center of a baozi wrapper and pleat the wrapper over the filling. (It's all right if there are a few tears or open spots on top for shuijianbao, as they won't leak.) Place the filled baozi on the baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with the rest of the wrappers and filling until you have 24 baozi. These can be made ahead of time and frozen at this point — they will not have to be defrosted first and will require about the same amount of cooking time. Let the baozi rise for around 20 minutes.
Steam-fry the buns

5. Place a large, well-seasoned, flat frying pan over medium heat. When it is hot, film the bottom of the pan with enough oil that it runs around freely. Return the pan to the heat and arrange the baozi in the pan so that they around ½ inch apart, as they will rise some more as they cook. (The buns will have to be cooked in a couple of batches.) Pour in enough boiling water so that there is around ¾ inch in the bottom of the pan. Immediately cover the pan closely and cook the baozi until the steam no longer emerges from under the lid and you can hear the sound of the oil popping. 

6. Remove the cover carefully and pointed away from you, as water might drip down, hit the hot fat, and explode. Gently shake the skillet and use a flat spatula as necessary to carefully loosen the buns, and then continue to fry them until their bottoms are a golden brown. Jerk the pan as they crisp up to loosen the buns, and then turn them out so that the crispy bottoms are on top. Serve immediately.

Monday, September 8, 2014

How to form and fill baozi

Last week we looked at how to make basic steamed bread. Today it is all about steamed filled buns, or baozi. This is China’s answer to the sandwich, only better. Hot and juicy, snack food just doesn’t get any better. 

Most parts of China have their own takes on this delicious way with steamed bread and filling: Guangdong’s char siu bao, for example, with their reddish sweet-salty pork filling, are standard issue in dim sum restaurants, and near the mouth of the Yangtze they are filled with nothing but vegetables, packed with meat, or turned into tiny morsels packed with broth called xiaolongbao. Up north around Beijing and Shandong, baozi are often very large, stuffed with pork or sweet paste, and meant to stick to your ribs.
Step 1

These might look daunting if you have never made them before, but the simple truth is that they are a snap to make. All it takes is an understanding of the basic principles and a bit of practice. After that, the sky’s the limit.

A quick note on the nomenclature, before we get any further: These are often simply referred to as bao in English, but in Chinese, they are called either baozi or something-something bao — like xiaolongbao or shuijianbao — but never plain old “bao.
Step 2

Now, on to the directions:

Follow the last week’s directions on A Steamed Bread Primer all the way to the end. Once that is done, we can start shaping and filling the buns. (We will discuss the insides later – today it is all about learning how to fill and wrap baozi.)
Step 3

1. Work on one piece at a time and keep the rest of the dough covered so that they do not dry out. Cut the dough into as many pieces are directed. Lightly roll the piece into a ball between the palms of your hands.  

2. Press down on the ball with the palm of your hand to flatten it into a disc.

Step 4
3. Lift up a side of the disc with the left hand* and use a Chinese rolling pin in the other to roll the disc out into a thin circle. Do this by rolling down one edge of the disc from near the center all the way out to the edge. Turn the 
disc counterclockwise  (or clockwise, if you are left-handed) about 45 degrees, meaning that you will do this 8 times before you get back to the starting point, while you continue to roll out the dough. This way you will end up with a fairly even circle. Keep rolling and turning the dough until you have a circle of the desired diameter.
Step 5

4. As you roll out this circle, leave the exact center alone so that you end up with what looks like an egg fried sunny-side up.

Step 6
5. The best baozi have an even layer of bread around the ball of filling, so it is important to make the top as thin as possible. However, you are going to be pleating that dough, which naturally makes the top pretty thick. This is what I have discovered: You can reduce this thickness by lightly pulling up on the edge all the way around. This makes the edge very thin and will give the final circle the look of a sombrero.
Step 7

6. To fill the baozi, make a cup shape with your left hand and poke the circle into that cup, so that the base of the dough is cuddled up against your middle finger.

Step 8
7. Carefully place the filling inside the center of the dough. Do not get any filling on the edges, as the oil in the filling will not allow you to seal the dough.

8. Pleat the top of the baozi closed: Do this by using the thumb of your left hand to poke down the filling while you pinch the dough closed with the thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger of your right hand.
Step 9

9. Work your way around the circle, pinching with the thumb, pointer, and middle fingers, while the thumb of your other hand keeps the filling away from the pleats.
Step 10

10. If you keep all of the pleats controlled with your thumb, pointer, and middle fingers, you will end up with a pointed top.

11. If you release the pleats as you go along, you will end up with a little depression in the top, which is also pretty. Place the filled baozi on oiled steamer paper and let them rise once more before steaming.

Step 11

* These directions are for right-handed people. If you are a lefty, reverse the hand directions.