Monday, November 24, 2014

Red-cooked beef of the North

My late mother-in-law once received a prize for her Red-Cooked Beef, and it indeed was one of her few specialties. Even nowadays, my husband occasionally gets a serious craving for his mom’s cooking, and it usually revolves around some sort of thing getting braised with soy sauce in the mix—in other words, it’s “red cooked.” One of his favorites is chicken (and you can certainly substitute chicken for beef here), and I almost always toss in some potatoes toward the end in order to complete his happiness. And he’s right: the potatoes do work like magic in here, adding a soothing, creamy edge to the hearty sauce and the slightly chewy bits of meat.

You can use just about any good stew beef here, and tendons are especially welcome, as they turn soft and velvety while transferring much of their body to the sauce. I’ve come to rely on cuts like brisket (which is from the breast) or the plate (which is from the front belly) for their full flavor and interesting texture, but really just about any part of the cow will do. Shanks are especially lovely this ways, too, by the way.

This is another one of those terrific basic recipes that can act as a template for experimentation and embellishment. Add tomatoes in late summer when they are at their tastiest, or some good (whole) canned ones at other times. Sichuan hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang) is tasty here, too—just be sure to fry it with the aromatics to elevate its flavors. If you don’t include the potatoes, serve this over noodles or with some sort of Chinese bread. Otherwise, a side of rice is perfect.

Red-cooked beef
Hóngshāo níuròu 紅燒牛肉
Northern China
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a soup

1 pound boneless stewing beef, or 2 pounds bone-in beef
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, peeled and cut into eights
¼ cup sliced ginger
3 to 6 cloves garlic
2 dried Thai chilies, optional
½ cup mild rice wine
Boiling water, as needed
3 star anise
½ stick cinnamon
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon rock or slab sugar
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1 green onion, trimmed and chopped, or a  handful of chopped cilantro

1. Rinse the beef and pat it dry. Cut the meat into 1-inch pieces; if you are using bone-in beef, simply cut the meat off of the bone first. Place a pressure cooker or pan over medium heat and pour in the oil when it is hot. Add the meat (and any bones) to the oil and let them brown before turning them over. At this point add the onion, ginger, garlic, and chilies.

2. When everything has been browned nicely, pour in the rice wine and cover the beef by around 2 inches with the boiling water. Cover the pressure cooker and cook on high for 20 minutes; if you are cooking it in a regular pan, simmer the beef until it is almost tender.

3. Add the soy sauce and sugar, bring the liquid back to a full boil, and simmer it uncovered until the beef is as tender as you like. Taste and adjust the seasoning. It can be cooked ahead of time up to this point, cooled, refrigerated, and the solid fat removed, if you like.

4. About 20 minutes before serving, bring the beef back to a full boil over high heat, add the potatoes to the pan, cover the pan loosely, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook the potatoes until they are barely soft. Taste and adjust the seasoning a final time. Sprinkle with green onions or cilantro.

A Thanksgiving gift to you: my secret recipe for seasoned sweet soy sauce

Dear Readers,

It is almost time for the best holiday of the year: Thanksgiving. And so, I just want to say that you are one of the things I am most grateful for. I couldn't write about the best cuisines in the world without you. Literally. And these Chinese food adventures wouldn't have been turned into a cookbook without you, either.

Also, I wanted to let you know that McSweeney's has delayed publication of ALL UNDER HEAVEN until September 2015. They are restructuring as they turn the company into a nonprofit, and so things have had to be shifted around a bit. In spite of that, I’m terribly grateful to the fine folks at McSweeney’s, too.

This delay has also meant that things are sort of backed up in the recipe testing department, so if you are wondering when that next recipe is coming down the pipeline, I can tell you that this will be taken care of soon, too. Your patience and understanding are two other good reasons for saying thank you.

So please, accept this gift of one of my all-time favorite, most secret, and intensely delicious inventions: Seasoned Sweet Soy Sauce.

Caramelized sugar
This is something that is beloved in Yunnan, and I think that is because of all the indigenous people there. If you love Southeast Asian cuisines, this sauce might even seem rather familiar. The contributions of China's ethnic minorities to the country's majestic cultural tapestry are just now beginning to find appreciation among culinary people, and their way with fermented things is astoundingly good. (We will look at another delicious example next week.)

You can buy this in most Chinese markets, but why bother, when the homemade version is so much tastier? It’s also a snap to make, and you will find yourself using again and again as a topping for braised meats and bean curd, as a quick fix for noodles, and just about anyplace else that could benefit from a touch of truly gorgeous flavor.

Homemade sweet soy sauce is much stronger and saltier than the store-bought kind, so adjust the amounts as needed. A lot of this will depend upon the kind of soy sauce you use. I like Kimlan’s regular soy sauce here. And then again, you can always dilute it as desired with hot water at the end.

The secrets to this amazing creation? Caramelized sugar, fresh aromatics, and warm spices. Your kitchen will smell incredible and even downright seductive.

Sweet soy sauce
Tiánjiàngyóu 甜醬油
Makes about 2 cups

1½ cups sugar
¾ cup water, divided
1 (500 ml.) bottle regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
Cook til thick
2 slices licorice root
2 whole star anise
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
5 thin slices ginger
Boiling water, as needed

1. Put the sugar in a medium, heavy saucepan, preferably stainless steel so that the caramelization process can be seen clearly. Moisten the sugar with ¼ cup water and place the pan on high heat until the sugar caramelizes. Remove the pan from the heat and wait a minute for it to cool down slightly. While directing the pan away from you, pour the rest of the water into the caramelized sugar — it will sizzle and boil, so keep your face and arms out of the splash zone.

2. As soon as the boiling has subsided, return the pan to high heat. Add the rest of the ingredients up through the ginger, and bring the liquid to a boil, stirring often so that the now hardened caramel melts into the sauce. Stir the sauce occasionally as it cooks, and when it starts to go from large bubbles to a fine foam, do not leave the stove, as it might boil over. Continue to boil the sauce until it has reduced to a molasses-like consistency, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Bottled heaven

3. Strain the sweet soy sauce into a measuring cup and add boiling water, as needed, to bring the sauce to 2¾ cups. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cool the sauce completely and pour it into a bottle. Refrigerate it if you not use it often, or else keep it near your stove in a cool spot.

Monday, November 17, 2014

One-upping the sugar doughnut

Continuing the theme of my obsessive interest in having a great breakfast whenever possible, today’s recipe for a morning bread comes from the unappreciated culinary goldmine of Anhui, which is located upriver (the Yangtze, that is) from Shanghai. Many of Shanghai’s delicious pastries came from the Huangshan area of southern Anhui, including such glorious creations as crabshell pastries, which have no seafood, just a savory mixture of meat and green onions stuffed inside the baked puff pastry.

Those of you who love Chinese food have probably enjoyed different versions of the scallion breads that have made their way into just about every restaurant nowadays. Crispy, with good-sized bits of green onion knocking around in the dough, these are terrific with soups and casseroles and just about anything else that could do with a little crunchy contrast.

Specialty of Tianchang
Anhui goes scallion bread one better and makes it like a sugar doughnut was tossed in the mix. The result is heavenly. In fact, the Chinese name for these is literally "the sweet dew pastries of Tianchang." With that dusting of sugar setting off the savory green onions and super-flaky bread, this is the ideal item to put on the table for breakfast, particularly if you have some hot soybean milk or even a nice latte on hand. 

But these breads are also different in that instead of the usual simple layer of fat rolled into the dough to form those many layers, this bread relies on the powdery mixture of flour and fat that the Chinese call yóusū 油酥, which is also used as a filling for many of East China's most delicious and popular pastries.

The idea of sugar and green onions may seem like an odd combination to you, but be assured that this happens a lot around the lower reaches of the Yangtze River for no better reason than it is downright good.  Anhui's sister to the east, Jiangsu, offers a huge array of pastries in its traditional teahouses, and this marriage of sweet and savory is a lasting one.

Cut the fat into the flour
It should therefore come as no surprise that this version hails from the town of Tianchang on Anhui's southeastern flank, in the little finger of land that is poking felicitously into the neighboring province of Jiangsu. And this isn't just anywhere in Jiangsu; Tianchang is just up the highway from Jiangsu's culinary capital of Yangzhou, home of some of the best cooking in the world.

I have specified white Chinese flour in this recipe because it has less gluten than American flour; Korean flour is particularly excellent and of high quality, and it is what I usually use. (See the October 3, 2010, post on hand-pulled noodles for more discussion and recommendations.)

Feel free to leave out the sugar if you want to serve this with dinner or lunch; it is good either way. Count on one bread per person as part of a meal, or two breads per person if serving this as the main offering at breakfast.

Sprinkle on the filling
Tianchang's sugared fried bread 
Tiāncháng gānlù bǐng  
Makes 4 breads

¾ cup Chinese flour, or ½ cup all-purpose plus ¼ cup pastry flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or lard, cut into small pieces

4 tablespoons cool water
Flour for rolling out the dough

¼ cup flour
1½ tablespoons cold unsalted butter or cold rendered chicken fat, cut into small pieces
½ teaspoon sea salt

1 green onion, trimmed and finely chopped

Finishing touches:
Vegetable or peanut oil for frying
3 tablespoons sugar
Roll over the edges

1. Make the dough first since it will have to rest a bit before you form the breads: mix the flour, fat, and water together in a medium work bowl to form a dough. Knead the dough until smooth and let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes to relax the gluten.

2. Next, make the filling: cut the fat into the flour using either a pastry knife and a small work bowl or a small processor. When the mixture looks like wet sand, toss in the salt and green onion, and mix these together well.

3. Roll the rested dough into a foot-long stick, and then divide it into 4 equal pieces. Dust your work surface with flour as needed and use a small rolling pin to roll out each piece into a rectangle about 3 inches by 6 inches in size. Sprinkle a quarter of the filling down the length of the dough, leaving all of the edges clear. Roll the dough over lengthwise and pinch the edges together to seal the filling inside the dough. Roll the dough edge over the filling again and then coil up the dough into a snail. Set the snail aside to rest while you roll out and fill the rest of the dough the same way.

Go almost to the edge
4. Lightly sprinkle your work surface with flour and dust the snail a bit, as well. Gently squash the snail and then roll out the snail to a 6-inch circle. (The best way to do this without making the filling burst out of the dough is to roll the pin out almost to the edge of the snail, turn the snail, and then roll it out again almost to the edge; if you don't roll over the edge itself, the filling has less incentive to pop out.)  The breads can be frozen in a single layer on waxed or parchment paper at this point, packed in freezer bags, and stored for weeks in the freezer; there is no need to defrost them before frying.

5. Have tongs and a plate covered with a paper towel ready at the side of the stove, and heat up the oven to 225°F.

6. Heat a few tablespoons in a flat frying pan over medium-high heat until the oil is sizzling hot. Gently lower one of the breads into the oil, and fry it until it is golden on one side, then flip it over and fry the other side, too. 

7. Drain the bread on the paper towel and toss it in the heated oven it to keep it warm.

Ready for breakfast
8. When all of the breads have been fried, cut them into quarters, arrange them on a serving platter, and sand them with the sugar. Eat them while they are hot, and don't count on any leftovers.


Cover the frying pan with a lid when frying both sides of the bread, and carefully regulate the heat so that the bread fries quickly but doesn't burn. Covering the pan allows the filling between the many layers of dough to steam and thus separate the dough into thin layers, which then cook rapidly, too.

As always, use the lower gluten Asian wheat flours for Chinese pastries since you will end up with a tender crumb that way.

Monday, November 10, 2014

I love the sound of crunch in the morning...

Popular all over the coastal north, these breakfast rolls probably are most beloved in the port of Tianjin. These offer all sorts of pleasures, both in terms of flavor and texture. A slight sweetness offsets the tang of the chili sauce, but these form little more than a gentle background for the main attractions: a chewy crêpe-like wrapper, a crunchy fried cruller, a fried egg (see the vegan option below), and a crispy leaf of lettuce. 

Perfection — even early in the morning — can easily be achieved.
Ready to roll

Tianjin breakfast rolls
Jiānbǐng guǒzi 煎餅果子
Tianjin, Beijing, & Hebei
Serves 4
cup Chinese or Korean flour (or two-thirds all-purpose plus one-third pastry flour)
cup mung bean flour
¾ cup cool water, or as needed
Peanut or vegetable oil
Wheat & mung bean flours

The rest:
1 Chinese cruller (youtiao), fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon chili sauce (page TK)
1 tablespoon sweet wheat paste
½ teaspoon sugar
4 large eggs, optional
1 green onion, finely chopped
4 large leaves lettuce (something crunchy like romaine is good)

Edges curling up
1. Mix the flours together in a large (1 quart, or so) measuring cup. Use a whisk to stir in enough cool water—about 1 cup—to form a thick, pancake-like batter. Let the batter rest while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Cut the cruller in half lengthwise and crosswise so that you have four pieces. Heat it in a 300°F oven (a toaster oven is perfect) until it is crispy.

3. Heat the sesame oil in a wok and add the chili sauce, sweet wheat paste, and sugar. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding whichever more ingredient you want to emphasize. Scrape the sauce into a small work bowl.

Chinese cruller
4. Set a nonstick flat pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, dip a paper towel in some of the oil and wipe it all over the inside of the pan. Gently stir the batter and pour ¼ of it into the pan (about cup batter), swirling the pan around with the other hand so that the bottom becomes evenly covered. Adjust the heat as needed to slowly cook the wrapper. As soon as the top is more or less set and the edges start to curl up, crack an egg on top, use your spatula to break it up and spread it over the wrapper, sprinkle on ¼ of the green onions, cover the pan, and continue to slowly cook the wrapper. When the egg is set, flip it over for a couple of seconds to cook it through, then flip it back over, and brush ¼ of the sauce over the top. Place a lettuce leaf and one piece of cruller on top. Remove the wrapper from the pan and roll it up like a burrito. Serve this one immediately and start to work on the other three. These can be sliced in half or quarters, if desired.


An egg is traditionally added to these wrappers, but vegans can omit it. Instead, sprinkle the green onions on the batter before it sets so that they stick to the pancake.