Monday, October 22, 2018

Pig's feet and Cinderella

Simple, nourishing, and oh so comforting, these pig feet will convert you... that is if for some odd reason you haven’t yet been sucked in yet by the absolute deliciousness of trotters. I’ve showed them in various guises—these smoked ones are to die for—but it’s time to showcase a Taiwanese favorite: trotters with peanuts.

A prosaic name, yes. But Cinderella wasn’t much of a name, either, was it? And just like Cinderella, even the briefest brush with this will lead to love. I mean, I buy two whole trotters—we’re talking a foot-long each of foot—and it’s never enough for the two of us. 

This is everyday homestyle cooking in Taiwan. It’s also served to nursing mothers as part of their recovery and to help them produce milk. If that is what you are aiming for here, add a few slices of ginseng or angelica (當歸 dàngguī) from a good herbalist to the braise for extra warmth.

Speaking of Cinderella, did you know that the origin of this story lies in China? Yes indeedy. It comes from the Yŏuyáng zázŭ 酉陽雜俎 (Miscellany from Youyang), a literary sketchbook by Duàn Chéngshì 段成式 in the ninth century:
Ready to braise with garlic
After her mother and then her father dies, a beautiful young girl named Yèxiàn 葉限 is turned into a slave by her evil stepmother and lazy half-sister. She is befriended by a benefactor who, instead being a fairy godmother, is Yexian’s mother in the form of a golden fish.  

Charles Perrault’s classic, of course, varies in minor details, but in every other way it is almost a complete retelling of this Chinese fairytale. 

For example…
·     Yexian mysteriously appears at a party in a gorgeous gown provided by her benefactor.
·     She runs away from the party and loses her slipper.
·     Eventually that lost slipper—which, like Cinderella’s, is remarkably tiny—finds its way into the possession of a king.
·     The king then searches to find the shoe’s owner. 
·     He at last finds her, makes her his queen, and punishes the wicked stepmother and half-sister. (The full text in Chinese can be found at酉陽雜俎/續集/卷一.)

I’d love to see a remake of this, Chinese style!

Trotters and peanuts
Huāshēng zhūjiăo 花生豬腳
Serves 8 
Cut up by the butcher, of course
2 whole trotters (about 4 pounds | 2 kg); have your butcher split them lengthwise and crosscut them twice, for a total of 6 pieces per trotter
Tap water and boiling water, as needed
1 cup | 250 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
4 inches | 60 g fresh ginger, sliced
6 whole garlic cloves, slightly smacked and peeled, optional but delightful
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns (place in a tea ball or paper sachet)
1 tablespoon rock sugar
3 cups | 1 pound | 500 g fresh raw peanuts, soaked overnight

1. Place the trotters in a large pan, cover with tap water, and place on high heat. Bring the pan to a boil, lower the heat, and blanch the trotters for about 10 minutes to remove most of the scum. Rinse the trotters and place in a clean pan or sandpot.

2. Add the rice wine, ginger, garlic, peppercorn, and rock sugar to the trotters, and then pour in enough boiling water to cover. Bring the liquid to a boil again and then lower it to a bare simmer. Cover the trotters and simmer for around an hour, or until they are just tender, but not falling apart, as they will still be cooked some more. Remove from the heat and set aside. Remove the peppercorns and discard.
Aromatics: ginger and peppercorns

3. Place the drained peanuts in a pan, cover with water, bring to a boil, and then lower the heat. Simmer the peanuts until just tender. Drain and add to the trotters. Bring the liquid back to a boil and add mushroom seasoning or salt to taste. Turn off the heat and let the trotters and peanuts sit overnight to absorb all those great flavors. This can also be refrigerated for up to a week.

4. Skim off the fat and use it for something else, if you like. Bring the trotters to a boil and then simmer for about 10 minutes to heat them through. Serve hot.


If you plan to make this ahead of time and serve portions over a couple of days, don’t cook either the trotters or the peanuts to a state of collapse. They will cook more as they are reheated, and of course at that point you can tip them over the edge into absolute tenderness. 

I adore using sweetened black vinegar as a dipping sauce for the trotters and to stir into the broth with the peanuts. It cuts the fattiness perfectly. Just stir agave syrup or honey into balsamic vinegar, and that’s it.

For absolute perfection, use the syrup left over from your sweet pickled garlic cloves. And nibble on those black cloves in-between bites. Truly ambrosial. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Pork rib soup in a carved winter melon

Sometimes just a tiny bit of work can give you something really spectacular for the dinner table. Case in point: soup inside a carved winter melon.

It used to be that you could only buy enormous winter melons. But recently a smaller variety has been showing up with delicious regularity in Chinese markets, and they are the perfect size for home meals. 

They are also fantastic for another reason: since they haven’t been cut up, they remain fresh and delicious for a very long time.

I adore winter melon. It has an unusual, almost spicy aroma, and it is one of the most versatile vegetables in creation. Hot or cold, savory or (yes!) sweet, this is a true chameleon.

You’re probably thinking, ‘Sweet?’ Well, yes indeedy. Winter melon is transformed into candy, sweet drinks, and extenders for sticky fillings, such as pineapple, which might otherwise be too cloying without the moistness and comparative blandness that grated winter melon can supply.

Be that as it may, winter melon is mainly beloved for its role in soups, in braises, and as a blank canvas for things like this delectably refreshing appetizer. But the one incarnation that always delighted me the most was when it arrived on a banquet table, all carved up into fancy designs, and acting as both the bowl and the vegetable for a delicious soup.

Now that I can lay my hands on these cute little melons, I’ve been enjoying them even more, since dinnertime gets turned into a special occasion when this soup is the centerpiece.

Pork rib soup in a carved winter melon
Páigŭ dōngguā zhōng 排骨冬瓜盅
Serves 4

Pork and marinade:
Around 1 pound | 500 g pork riblets (half a side of ribs, the bones cut into 1 inch | 2 cm pieces)
¼ cup | 60 ml regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 cup | 250 ml peanut or vegetable oil

1 quart | 1 liter unsalted stock or water, divided
1 cup | 250 ml Shaoxing rice wine
2 inches | 5 cm fresh ginger, sliced
Rock sugar to taste
1 tablespoon homemade mushroom seasoning, or salt or soy sauce to taste
Ice cubes, as needed

1 small winter melon (about 3 pounds | 1.5 kg)

1. Cut between the bones to separate the riblets. Pat them dry and place them in a resealable bag or container. Toss them with the soy sauce and rice wine, and then marinate for at least a couple of hours and up to 5 days. Drain the riblets and pat dry.

2. Set a wok or frying pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Slide in half of the riblets and fry until golden. Remove the riblets and then repeat with the other half.

3. Bring the stock (or water) and rice wine to a full boil in a medium saucepan. Add the ginger and the fried ribs, bring the pan once more to a full boil, and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the ribs until very tender, adding more stock or water as needed to keep the ribs covered. Remove the pan from the heat and cool. Add ice cubes to the soup, and then skim off and discard the congealed fat and leftover ice cubes.

4. While the stock is simmering, carve the winter melon (see Tips below), cut off the top to make a lid, and scrape out the seeds and membrane. Set the winter melon in a heatproof bowl and set the melon lid in the steamer, too, but without covering the melon, so that the heat easily penetrates the inside of the melon. (If you are going to serve this at a fancy dinner, though, replace the lid on the melon, as this will help keep the shape of both parts.) Steam the winter melon until it is tender but still holds it shape, at least 1 hour. Cool the melon until it is relatively easy to handle, and then pour out any liquid in it.

5. Now, before you go any further, practice removing that bowl from the steamer. Remember that it will be hot and heavy when it comes time to remove it, so figure that in, as well. The bowl should have a good lip on it, so that you can use a strong canning lifter to get a grip on it. The other alternative is to set the bowl on a small heatproof plate. But whatever you use, make sure there are a couple of inches | centimeters all the way around the bowl and optional plate so that you can safely grab them without dropping them back into the pot. It's a big mess when that happens, and yes, I'm speaking from experience.

6. Bring the ribs and broth to a full boil. Put enough of the ribs in the cooked winter melon so that the lid can still be placed on top of the melon, and then add the broth almost to the top of the melon bowl. Cover the melon with its lid, and then steam it for around 15 minutes to completely heat through the melon. Serve hot. Add more hot broth and ribs as needed, and toward the end of the meal, scrape out the melon flesh and serve with more of the broth.

Tips on carving

Wash the winter melon and pat dry. Use a paring knife to sketch out your pattern.

To cut the pattern, use either a paring knife, specialty carving tools, or (my favorite) a channel knife as shown in the second photo, as this makes the carving especially easy to control.

Once you have the melon decorated to your satisfaction, use a zigzag pattern to cut off the lid (see photo on the right). 

The membrane will be connected to the lid and therefore secure the lid down onto the melon, so carefully pry the lid off as much as you can, and then slip your paring knife in there to slash off the membrane. The seeds and membrane are pretty easy to remove after that.

Set the winter melon in a heatproof bowl that fits easily into your steamer. 

Make sure that there is plenty of clearance around the melon so that the heat circulates well, and also so that you can lift out your bowl without too much trouble. A wide, deep pot with a trivet or even a pasta insert work well.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Chinese chili chez Huang

Whenever the husband gets into a funk, I find that a really easy way to snap him out of it is to feed him. Just about anything will do, but something homey from his childhood will actually make him bounce downstairs. Today’s recipe is one such remedy.

However, we’ve been together for an eternity by now, and so I’ve put my own stamp on his mom’s classics. Here, for example, I use good old Mexican pinto beans because I’m a California girl. And a smattering of ground chiles. And he loves it. And he loves it even more if I serve this with cornbread, which also was not ever on his mother’s To Do list.

Cross-cultural pollination at work. You’re welcome.

This is super easy to throw together if you soak the beans the night before. And you always want to soak your beans overnight because their texture is so much better that way.

In fact, if you are rather unused to cooking with dried beans, here are some suggestions for getting an incredible meal out of an ingredient that is usually pretty cheap, very nutritious, and mind-blowingly good:

Barely cooked pinto beans
First, get fresh beans. Yes, they are dried, but they can’t be old. Old beans never soften up completely, no matter how hard you try, and so end up with the wrong texture and never taste marvelous. So, buy your beans from a busy market and use them up quickly. Then, whenever you clean out your cupboards and run across some old beans, turn them into pie weights or give them to some kids to turn into an art project… anything but cook with

New-crop dried beans will turn soft and creamy when
treated with care, and their cooking time will also be very short. Pinto beans are particularly silky in this dish precisely because they are so fresh, were soaked overnight, and then briefly simmered with a spoonful of baking soda, which helps to cut down on the gassiness. At least, this works for me, and I’m not going to argue about it.

Second, boil them only until they are tender, but not yet soft, for they will need to retain enough character to put up with further cooking once they join the pork, onions, and broth.

Lots of garlic
And finally, don’t add salt until the very end, when they have already achieved the right degree of tenderness, because salt will toughen them up.

If you do these three things, you’ll find that beans are a delight and will end up cooking them a whole lot more often.

Chinese chili chez Huang
Huángjiā dùn dòuzi  黃家燉豆子
Northern Chinese with a twist
Serves 6

About 1 pound | 500 g new harvest dried beans, pinto recommended
Water, as needed
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 head garlic, each clove peeled and lightly smacked
About 1 pound | 500 g ground pork, best quality you can find
½ cup | 125 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
5 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 quart | 1 liter lightly salted broth or water
1 piece of rock sugar. about the size of a ping-pong ball | 30 g
1 tablespoon ground chiles of any kind, plus more to taste
Browning adds great flavor

1. Start this at least a day before you plan to
serve this. Pick over the beans, place in a large work bowl, cover with cool
tap water, and soak overnight.

2. The next day, drain the beans, place them in a large pan (at least 1 gallon | 4 liters in size), and cover with water. You want this large size because the beans will foam up as they come to a boil, and the high walls will help keep your stove from becoming an ungodly mess. Sprinkle in the baking soda, but do not add salt. Bring the pan to a full boil, lower it to a gentle simmer, and skim off the foam if it threatens to escape. Simmer the beans only until they are tender, around 10 minutes. Drain and rinse the beans in a colander.

3. Set a wok over medium heat and add the oil. Fry the onions gently for a few minutes before adding the whole garlic cloves. Cook these only until translucent, and then make a nest in the bottom of the wok. Break the pork into this nest and fry the pork until it has lost all pink color. Toss the onions and pork together and continue to fry and toss these until they turn golden. 
A sprinkle of chile powder

4. Pour in the rice wine, and after a few minutes add
the soy sauce, stock or water, rock sugar, and ground chiles. Bring this to a full boil, and then lower the heat and simmer these together for around 30 minutes. 

5. Add the cooked beans, simmer for about 10 minutes, and then adjust the seasoning as desired. When the beans are soft and creamy, remove the wok from the heat. Let the chili sit for a couple of hours
or overnight to allow the beans to absorb the flavor. Reheat before serving. This is great over rice or with cornbread, and it freezes very well.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Pot au feu chez Huang

Autumn is finally here. The big-leaf maples in our foothills have thrown off their summer green for their stunning fall yellow. 

The flowers in the front yard are starting to fade and stud the garden with warm swaths of brown, confusing the butterflies, but delighting the chickadees and sparrows with this sudden abundance of tiny seeds. 

We’re even supposed to get rain this week, miracles of miracles. 

And so I’m putting away the salads and pulling out my recipes for stews and soups and other comfort foods that will cheer up the evenings and warm our toes.

Today’s dish is ostensibly from Zhejiang, but I’ve messed around with it a little bit. For example, I brown the beef and ginger, rather than keep them pale, as I love the deep flavor that caramelization provides. However, I don’t brown the onions, as that would be make this particular dish too dark.

Heavenly marbleization
Traditionally this is a very simple soup designed to highlight a relatively rare ingredient for Eastern Chinese cuisines: beef. Normally you’ll find this only in the far west, north, and central highlands, but once it a while it shows up in this area, as well as in Guangdong (like Crispy Beef Tomato Chow Mein… oh how I love that).

The only thing I’d advise you to really pay attention to here is the quality of the beef. Nothing will be able to disguise less-than-perfect meat, just as nothing can compare to the aroma and flavor of the finest beef. So last week when I came across these lovely chuck steaks at the Five Dot Ranch stall at Oxbow, they practically called out to me. I also managed to stock up on other hard-to-get yet incredibly delicious items such as beef heart, tripe, and shins. (More on those in the future.)

When an ingredient is as rare as beef in Zhejiang, you know that their heirloom recipes are going to put a spotlight on its presence, for it would have been an expensive treat. At the same time, any gaminess would have always been downplayed, for that is something that wouldn’t ever play well at a Hangzhou feast. So, what you end up with is something actually quite delicate and clever. Stark, even.

Ginger is a necessity here
Because it is so stark, I like to serve this with a mellow scallion-ginger dipping sauce. You’ve probably had this before many times in Cantonese delis, as it is almost a mandatory accompaniment to other plain dishes like White Cut Chicken. Using it here transforms something almost Puritanical into a sybaritic experience, for each slice of the braised beef gets bathed in a richly seasoned oil. 

I’ve tossed in spinach at the end, too, to make this more like a pot au feu– meat and veg all in one tidy casserole. It’s simple, yet delectable, and yet one more reason why I always look forward to autumn.

Pot au feu chez Huang
Huángjiā qīngdùn níuròu 黃家清燉牛肉
Zhejiang crossed with Guangdong
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon oil
1 generous tablespoon julienned ginger
1½ pounds | 750 g chuck steak (or whatever braise-worthy cut of beef looks good to you)
¼ cup | 60 ml Shaoxing rice wine, plus more as needed
Half an onion, thickly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
Boiling water, as needed
Ice cubes, as needed
Mushroom seasoning or sea salt to taste
1 bunch spinach, cleaned and coarsely chopped, optional

Dipping sauce:
See the sauce for White Cut Chicken

Ahhhh, that caramel color
Note: These directions are for a pressure cooker. If you don’t have one, simply follow the directions through Step 2 using a wok or casserole, and then simmer the beef uncovered until it is barely fork tender, adding more liquid as needed. 

1. Set the bottom of a pressure cooker over medium-high heat and pour in the oil. Sprinkle in the ginger and then add the steak. Sear the steak on both sides until it is brown and crispy – the best way to do this is to patiently wait until a crust has formed on the bottom, at which point you will be able to gently nudge the beef free. It will stick and tear if you fuss with it before it’s ready, so really, wait for that crust to form. Always remember that caramelization is divine.

2. Pour in the rice wine. Add the onions and then the boiling water to barely cover. Do not add salt of any kind at this point, as it will toughen the meat. Cover the pressure cooker, seal, and cook on high pressure for 40 minutes, regulating the heat as needed. Remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let it cool down until you can open it easily. The beef should be barely fork tender, but not falling apart.

Fatty icebergs
3. Remove the beef to a plate, cool it to room temperature, and refrigerate it if you are not using it that evening. When the stock has cooled down, add a good handful of ice cubes to it, as this will solidify the fat. Strain the stock and discard the fat and solids. 

4. Cut the beef crosswise against the grain into slices about ½ inch | 1 cm thick, or however you like. Set it in a casserole and pour the strained stock over it. Gently raise the heat to a simmer so that the meat is warmed through but not violently recooked. Taste the stock and adjust the seasoning with more rice wine or whatever else you think it needs. Add the optional spinach, cover, and simmer these together just to wilt the leaves. Scoot the spinach into an attractive nest. Serve hot with the dipping sauce.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Hakka braised stuffed vegetables

You will find meat-stuffed 
vegetables and bean curd throughout much of China’s southern regions, but for my money the best version belongs to the Hakka.

Part of this has to do with the emphasis on the vegetables, rather than the stuffing. 

Hakka food is very veggie-centric, and so meat tends to serve as a seasoning most of the time, rather than the main event. And in this dish, the results are superb and perfectly balanced. 

Eggplant becomes soft and comforting, the peppers provide spark and interest, and the mushrooms add their own spin on meatiness. It’s an inspired combination. But what I really love is the eggplant, so there is a preponderance of eggplant in here. 

Rice wine, fish sauce, oyster sauce
My late father-in-law was a master at stuffing bean curd (aka doufu or tofu), and his preferred filling was a mixture of ground dace (a kind of fish) and pork. You often can find dace already pounded into a thick, smooth paste at Chinese markets with a large Cantonese clientele, but I tend to be wary, as who know what’s in there and how long it’s been there.

So, to get a taste of the sea, I use things like oyster sauce and fish sauce to ramp up the xianwei (umami) here. The results are absolutely delicious.

This Hakka dish traditionally has three main ingredients, which almost always includes eggplant, and the other main candidates are bean curd, sweet pepper, chile peppers, bitter melon, and mushrooms. 

Stuffed 'shrooms & peppers
Now that the eggplants and pepper plants are going crazy in my back yard, I feature them here with pleasure. 

This is not at all hard to pull together. In fact, you can do it in stages, if you like. To be honest, this braise is even better if you can manage to get everything done ahead of time so that it can sit in the fridge for a day or two, for it allows the flavors to mellow and mingle, and the sauce to permeate down into the filling and vegetables.  

All you need to do then is simply heat it up and serve it with steamed rice and maybe a green vegetable. 

Hakka braised stuffed vegetables chez Huang
Huángjiā Kèjiā niàngsānbăo  黃家客家釀三寶
Whack until sticky
Serves 6 to 8

1 pound ground pork (not too lean)
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
1 scallion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ cup | 50 g cornstarch, or so

5 to 6 fat Chinese or 4 Japanese eggplants (long, rather than egg-shaped)
1 large or 2 small sweet peppers (any variety), and/or 6 to 12 fat fresh chile peppers (of whatever heat level you fancy)
An eggplant 'sandwich'
8 brown mushrooms, or some other stuffable mushroom

The braise:
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
6 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly whacked
6 slices fresh ginger
1 scallion, chopped
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine
1½ teaspoons sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups | 500 ml unsalted chicken stock plus 1 cup | 250 ml water, or 3 cups | 750 ml water

Chopped cilantro, torn basil, or chopped scallions

Filled sandwich
1. Place the ground pork on a cutting board and whack away at it with the back of a heavy knife, scraping it up and turning it over, until it is light. Place this in a medium work bowl. Add the ginger, scallion, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and egg, and beat these together with your hand (hold it stiff like paddle) to incorporate these fully. Alternatively, you can use a food processor, but what’s the fun in that?

2. Trim off the stem and blossom ends of the eggplant. Cut the eggplant crosswise into pieces about 1 inch | 2.5 cm thick, and then cut each of these almost all the way through the middle, so that they are connected at one side; this will help keep the sandwiches from falling apart. Dust the insides of the eggplant sandwiches with cornstarch.

Dusted sandwich
3. Cut the sweet peppers in half, remove the stems and seeds, and then cut them into pieces about the same size as the eggplant. Cut the chile peppers in half, remove the stems and seeds, and cut them into smaller pieces, if necessary. Wipe the mushrooms clean and remove the stems. Dust the insides of these vegetables with some cornstarch, too.

4. Fill the eggplant sandwiches, peppers, and mushrooms with the meat mixture, patting it in so that it’s glued inside the vegetables. Dust the meaty areas of the stuffed vegetables with cornstarch, as this will help prevent them from sticking to the pan and falling apart, and then knock off the excess. If you have extra filling or vegetables, don't sweat it. Just brown them, too, and toss them into the pot.
Frying up the eggplant
5. Now prepare the sauce. Pour about a tablespoon of oil in a large casserole or sandpot and set it over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and scallions. Brown these lightly, and then add the rest of the braising ingredients. Bring the liquid to a boil, simmer for a few minutes, and then reduce the heat to low.

6. Finally, fry the vegetables. Set a large flat pan on medium heat and add a good glug of oil. When the oil is hot, place the stuffed vegetables in the pan and brown all over, adjusting heat as needed. Remove these to the casserole or sandpot as they turn completely golden. You will have to do this in batches, by the way. Be sure and set the peppers and mushrooms meat-side up, as this will help keep the filling in place. The liquid doesn’t need to cover the vegetables, but they all should have at least their feet wet. 

So satisfying
7. Bring the casserole or sandpot almost to a boil, and then lower it to a very gentle simmer. Do not stir the veggies, as this might knock out the filling. Slowly bvraise the vegetables for about an hour, and then remove from the heat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning as desired. This dish should rest for at least 15 minutes, and is even better the next day. 

8. Carefully pour off the liquid into a gravy separator, if you have one, as the eggplant will have dumped most of the oil by now. You can also simply skim off the oil with a spoon. (Keep this oil for stir-frying or eggs – it’s really aromatic.) Boil the sauce in a saucepan until thick. You will have a lot of food here, so you can do what I do: pack it up in containers and either freeze or refrigerate until needed. Microwave or steam the veggies until heated through. Pour the hot, thick sauce over the top. Sprinkle with cilantro, basil, or scallions, and serve hot.