Monday, May 2, 2016

Meaty cloud soup

This is, when all is said and done, a meatball soup. But then again, we’re talking about Shanghainese cuisine, so it is also a whole lot more than that. As seems to be the rule everywhere at the mouth of the Yangtze River, ingredients are tweaked in ways that absolutely no other place on the planet seems to have heard about, much less enjoyed.

Not too many people outside of the Shanghai area are fans of this soup simply because they haven’t tried it, and so this is a beloved secret of my Shanghainese friends. Once again, I think this all has to do with the name. In both Chinese and English, stuffed gluten puff soup does not have a whole lot of pizazz to it. Perhaps so much creativity went into the creating of dishes like this that by the time the chef was asked what it was called, he or she simply gave a description of the main ingredients.
Fried gluten puffs
Here’s a much better name: Meaty Cloud Soup. That pretty much encapsulates the textural experience you are in for with this dish, for surrounding each tiny meatball is a thin layer of fried gluten that turns soft and silky in the soup, and this ends up cossetting your mouth, caressing your tongue, and then bursting open at first bite, so that the juices scramble all over your taste buds and almost startle you with their liveliness.

Fried gluten probably was invented upstream on the Yangtze at one or another of the Buddhist temples or restaurants that dot the area. Or, at least, that is what seems to have happened. Gluten is a popular meat substitute throughout the vegetarian eastern region of China, where it is used in simple preparations such as this – fried into balls – and also turned into excellent replacements for things like pork and chicken.

Gluten is made by kneading wheat flour with water into a dough, and then the starch is rinsed out, leaving behind only the sticky gray gluten. Tiny balls of this gluten mass are then quickly deep fried into golden balloons about 2 inches/5cm in diameter. You can find these in most Chinese markets that cater to new arrivals from China, rather than in traditional Cantonese stores. The come in plastic bags and keep for a very long time if refrigerated and not opened. They crush easily, though, so treat them with care.
Poke a hole in the softened gluten

If you are not in the mood for soup, these stuffed balls are just as delicious when red-cooked, which means that they are braised in a deeply colored sauce seasoned with rice wine, rock sugar, and soy sauce. Add plumped up black mushrooms for even more xianwei deliciousness and perch some blanched bok choy around the edge of the dish for contrast. Absolutely yummy with nothing more than rice on the side.

Stuffed gluten puff soup
Yóumiànjīn sāi ròu tāng 油麵筋塞肉湯
Serves 4 to 6

1 quart/1l unsalted or lightly salted chicken stock
¼ cup/60ml Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
4 ounces/65g baby bok choy

Stuffed puffs:
2 tablespoons dried shrimp
Boiling water
3 to 4 ounces/85 to 110g Indian asters or arugula
8 ounces/225g ground pork
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons ginger oil or green onion oil
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
1 (1.76 ounces/50g) bag of large fried gluten puffs (about 11 – 13 puffs total)

Filled to bursting
1. First prepare the soup by mixing the stock, rice wine, and ginger in a wide saucepan. Bring this to a boil and then lower the heat to a bare simmer. Let the stock slowly cook while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. If the stock boils down, add boiling water as needed. Cut the bok choy in half or quarters, soak it in warm water to remove any grit hiding in the leaves, and then drain it well in a colander.

2. Place the dried shrimp in a small, heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let them soak while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. When they are soft, drain and clean the shrimp, and then chop them finely.

3. Defrost the Indian asters, if needed. Rinse them or the arugula in a colander, and then either squeeze the excess water out of the asters or shake the arugula dry. Finely chop the vegetables and place them in a medium work bowl. Add the chopped shrimp, pork, egg, oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and pepper, and then mix these together until even.
Juicy stuffing

4. Pour a couple tablespoons boiling water into a bowl. Working on one gluten ball at a time, let the ball float on the hot water for around 5 to 10 seconds until that one spot of crispy gluten has softened. Work a finger into the hole from that soft spot and then gently press down on the interior of the ball, which will feel like Styrofoam webbing. You should end up with a hollow balloon. Repeat with the rest of the balls until all have been hollowed out, replacing the water with fresh boiling water as needed.

5. Fill each gluten ball with as much of the meat mixture as it will hold; there is no need to seal the holes, as the meat will immediately cook as soon as it is in the hot soup. (If you have extra forcemeat left over, use this for something else. It’s great fried up with beaten eggs or mixed into braised bean curd.)

6. Slide the stuffed gluten balls into the simmering soup and continue to simmer it very gently for at least 30 minutes. If you are not ready to serve it after this time, turn off the heat and then reheat it to a boil about 5 minutes before dinner; it is even better the second or third day. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and then toss in the bok choy. Bring the soup to a boil and then immediately remove it from the heat. Serve very hot.


Complete meal in a bowl
Do not boil the soup for more than a few seconds after you have added the meatballs, as that violent action might very well break them up. Keep the soup at a low simmer, though, to give the meatballs time to soak up the chicken stock and also return some of their own seasonings to the soup.

Likewise, do not overcook the bok choy. It should just be barely blanched so that it remains crisp and sweet.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Sexy Shanghai crab

I really cannot think of a more luxurious cuisine than the delicious trifecta that includes Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. Just like in last week’s recipe for Clams in Custard, the names for some of these dishes do not scream out sensuality, in either Chinese OR English. But believe me, food just does not get better than this. Something about the area around the Yangtze River Delta manages to bring perfect ingredients, textural nuance, and fresh flavors together in the ways that continually astound and delight.

Take this dish, for example. It is, simply put, insanely easy to put together, and yet I’ve never found it anywhere in the States. You find yourself a crab, have your fishmonger prep it, and then you toss it in a vibrant sauce with some rice cakes. Fifteen, twenty minutes, tops. But the results are incredible: sweet crabmeat contrasts with the salty seasonings, hard shells bounce up against the pillowy rice cakes, and the sauce forms a silky sheet that brings everything together.

Dining on this is also a descent into a more hedonistic realm that you might expect, as you have to slow down as you peel the shells off of the crab, lick your fingers and the shells, dip your crabmeat into the creamy sauce, and then enjoy its fresh sweetness against the puffy rice cakes, that turn soft and chewy in their short braise.

Cracked Dungeness
You can use live or cooked crabs for this recipe. I live in the Bay Area, so our go to variety is freshly steamed Dungeness. But live ones work equally well. Just go with whatever is local and in season. If you get a cooked crab, ask your fishmonger to do the following: save the carapace (top shell), remove the gills and clean the body, but keep any tomalley or roe, and then chop the body and crack the legs. For live ones, ask that they be killed and then prepared as with the cooked ones. You can do this at home, but this is a whole lot easier and makes you enjoy the dish even more.

It’s crab season around here. Get cracking.

Crab in bean sauce with rice cakes
Jiàngbào pángxiè nián’gāo  醬爆螃蟹年糕
Serves 4 to 6

Around 1 pound/450g whole crab or crabs (see headnotes)
Flour, as needed (about 3 tablespoons)
Around 8 ounces/225g rice cakes (batons preferred, but ovals ok)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon bean sauce (see Tips)
1 tablespoon catsup
1 cup/240ml water
1 cup/240ml peanut or vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
2 green onions, whites and greens chopped and kept in separate piles
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
  teaspoons pale rice vinegar
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Check over the crab and use the butt of your Chinese knife or cleaver to crack any parts that look too solid, as you want your diners to enjoy the food without wrestling with it. Remove any loose bits of shell and check to see that the gills (feathery bits) have all been successfully removed. Place the crab (including the carapace) in a large work bowl and toss with enough flour to coat it evenly. 

Fried crab
2. Next, shake the rice cakes into another work bowl and separate them as much as possible, since you want them to cook evenly and get a chance to completely soften up in the sauce as fast as possible. Mix together the soy sauce, sugar, bean sauce, catsup, and water. Set a clean, heatproof work bowl, Chinese spider or slotted spoon, and work chopsticks next to the stove.

3. Place your wok over medium-high heat and add the oil when the iron is hot. As soon as a bit of flour sprinkled on the oil sizzles and disappears, pick up small handfuls of the crab and shake off the extra flour before sliding them into the hot oil. Cook the crab in 2 or 3 batches so that you have plenty of room to move them around and toss them in the oil. As soon as the crab is a pale gold and the shells turn pink, use your spider and chopsticks to remove them to the clean work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the crab until it is all fried.
Baton-shaped rice cakes

4. Drain out all but a couple of tablespoons of oil and return the wok to medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and onion whites to the hot oil and stir them around. Once they begin to take on a slightly golden tinge, scrape them and the oil out onto the crab.

5. Pour the soy sauce mixture into the wok and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the rice cakes and bring the sauce to a boil before lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the rice cakes until they are soft and pillowy, about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often so that they do not stick to the wok; add more water, if necessary.

6. When the rice cakes are as soft as you like them, raise the heat to high. Toss in the crab and fried aromatics, as well as the rice wine, vinegar, and sesame oil. Toss these continually until the sauce thickens and the crab is heated through. At the last minute, toss in the onion greens and serve in a shallow bowl or casserole with the top shell perched attractively over the top, along with a bowl on the side to collect the shells.


Non-spicy bean sauce
Be sure to use a non-spicy bean sauce here, the one called doubanjiang, not la doubanjiang. Har Har brand from Taiwan is very good and comes in both cans and jars. (You can, of course, use a spicy bean sauce here, but it will then turn into more of a Sichuan-style dish. Still very tasty that way, of course!)

If you don't have this type of sauce on hand, sweet wheat sauce (tiánmiànjiàng) can be used instead.

Rice cakes generally come either in batons, which are about 1 inch/2.2cm long and ¼ inch/5mm wide, or as oval discs a little over an inch long. The latter are cut from logs, which occasionally can be found, but these are difficult to slice unless you get them very fresh. Fortunately, rice cakes are easy to find in Korean markets, as well as Chinese ones that cater to more recent immigrants, and they will be stored in the frozen or refrigerated section, usually near noodles and other starchy products.

If the rice cakes are frozen, remove as many as you plan to use and then freeze the rest. Fresh ones should be used up within a week or two, and be sure and discard them if they get black spots or feel slimy. Fresh rice cakes can also be frozen if you are not planning to use them immediately.

This crab dish makes great leftovers. Bring about a cup of water to a boil, and then toss the leftovers in the boiling water until they heat through; add more boiling water as needed to keep the rice cakes and sauce from sticking.


In the picture at the top of the page you will see that I fried the onion greens first to toast them up. A guest for that particular dinner doesn't care for raw or lightly cooked onion greens, so I fried them to a golden brown, which changed their character enough so that she was very happy. I got some nice green onion oil out of the deal, so I was happy, too.  

Monday, April 18, 2016

Let's revive teatime - this is the reason

The first time I had this was at an elegant Taipei restaurant at the end of an especially impressive banquet. And I must say, I was quite impressed but also dismayed.

You see, the whole meal had been fabulous, and after our table of hungry guests had been stuffed until we could not eat another bite, the chef then wheeled out a plate of these delicate crêpes filled with date paste. I knew was already exceeding my capacity, but took a slice anyway – just to be polite, you know. It was so delicious and I yet was so painfully full that it was a horrible dilemma. And so I nibbled on it slowly, completely unwilling to let it go to waste. And after a decent interval had elapsed, I then used the tips of my chopsticks to mop up all the little crumbs and smears left behind on my plate.

Whip up the batter
It was this dinner that made me fully comprehend the wisdom behind the Chinese preference for serving sweets at tea time, rather than after a full meal: When you already are so packed with food that you just want to curl up into a ball and sleep for a couple of years, that is not the best time to be confronted with something insanely delicious.

Afternoon tea, on the other hand, is ideal. You’ve already digested lunch and dinner looms on the horizon, so you are not starving, but a cup of hot tea and a couple of sweet snacks will be wholeheartedly welcomed by your eyes, mouth, and stomach. This is one meal where you’re not supposed to fill up, but rather satisfy your senses and find ways to complement the tea. If you can have a good friend or that certain someone to share it with, that turns teatime into one ideal way to spend a leisurely hour or two.

Lightly oil your pan
Grilled crêpes with date paste is inspired for so many reasons. The exterior is crispy (as long as it’s fresh off the fire), and this contrasts with a slightly spongy interior that is bathed with a thin layer of sweet date paste. It’s also a snap to make. You first make the filling and let it cool off before wrapping it in thin pancakes. These are then rolled up, and then they are gently fried a bit longer to crisp the exterior. You slice it crosswise to make it easy to manage with chopsticks, and then let your diners serve themselves.

I seriously think that teatime is a custom we should resurrect post haste.

Grilled crêpes with date paste 
Zăoní guōbĭng 棗泥鍋餅
Serves 6 to 8

Date paste:
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1½ to 2 cups/300 to 400g canned date paste (see Tips), or you can used homemade and skip the oil here and all of Step 1

1 cup/150g Chinese flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Bird’s Custard Powder, optional (see Tips)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ cup/125ml whole milk
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons/280ml water
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

Place the filling in the center
1. Place your wok over medium heat and add the sesame oil when the iron has turned hot. Scrape in the date paste and then fry it, stirring very often with a silicone spatula, until all of the oil has been absorbed and the date paste is glossy. Scrape the paste out into a heatproof bowl and let it cool to room temperature. (This can be done weeks ahead of time; just refrigerate the paste covered.)

2. Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, and optional custard powder in a work bowl. Use a whisk to combine the egg, milk, and water until smooth, and then gently whisk this into the dry ingredients until they are barely mixed; it is all right if there are some small lumps in the batter. Let the mixture sit for 20 minutes or so, as this will give the tiny flecks of flour time to expand. Gently stir it just before using, and if it is thicker than heavy cream, mix in a little bit more water.

3. Have a toaster oven or oven set to 275°F/135°C/Gas Mark 1 and set out a small baking sheet or pan. Set an 8-inch/20cm frying pan on medium heat. Pour in the oil and then use a paper towel to smear it around the inside of the pan and remove most of the oil; keep the oiled paper handy, as you will use it to grease the pan between crêpes.

4. Once the frying pan is hot, swirl one quarter of the batter into the pan to create a thin layer that covers the bottom. Shape a quarter of the date paste into a thin patty about 2 inches/5 cm wide and almost 8 inches/20 cm long. As soon as the outer rim of the crêpe turns dull, lay the date paste down the center of the crêpe. When the edge of the crêpe loosens itself from the pan, fold both side of the crêpe over the date paste and continue to gently fry the crêpe until it is a golden brown on the bottom. Use a spatula to flip it over and fry the other side until it too is golden brown. Remove to the baking pan and keep the crêpe hot in the oven. Repeat with the rest of the batter and filling until you have 4 filled crêpes. Quickly slice these crosswise into pieces about ¾ inch/1 cm wide, arrange on a serving platter, and serve immediately while still hot.
Edge of the crêpe fluttering up


Red bean paste is delicious here, too, and you can also toss in about 1 cup/130g chopped toasted walnuts or shelled pine nuts for more texture.

Bird’s Custard Powder is a British invention that is beloved in South China for the extra depth of flavor it adds to pastries. If you don’t have this on hand, add a touch of vanilla to the batter instead.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Silky, sensuous, savory custard from Shanghai

This is comfort food of the highest order. Yes, it’s simple, straightforward, inexpensive, and very delicious, but it is also so silky and cosseting that I feel like I’m being pampered whenever I see it on the table, even if I was the one who made it.

Here are my secrets to making this perfect the first time around:

First, locate some small, fresh clams, not much larger than an inch (2.2 cm) across. You want them to be tender enough so that you don’t have to wrestle with them, either in your mouth or on your plate. You can double the amount of clams, if you like.

Second, use a combination of the clam juices and chicken stock to add a vibrant xianwei undertone to the light flavors of the shellfish and eggs. Strain the clam juice, as there almost always will be fine sand from the clams in there. Just to be absolutely sure that no grit sneaks into your dish, let the clam juice cool and settle so that you only have to deal with the top layer of clear liquid.

Third, always strain the egg mixture as you pour it into the bowl. This makes the texture even and smooth, with no wobbly bits sitting around half cooked or looking weird. Straining your custard makes a world of difference.

Fourth, opening up the steamer halfway through cools off the custard just a bit so that the edges don’t become overcooked. What happens is that the interior keeps on cooking, so this little step helps to even out the texture. Be sure not to steam the eggs past the point that they have firmed up, as otherwise holes will form in the custard and the texture will harden. It will still taste good, but you will no longer have that divine texture.
Smallish clams

If you don’t like clams, try some fresh mussels or shrimp or cubes of a mild fish in here. Baby peas would be pretty in here, too, and provide a nice bit of textural contrast.

The ginger and ginger oil are my own contributions to this classic. Feel free to use fried green onions and their oil, toasted sesame oil, or whatever appeals to you and complements your menu.

Clams in custard
Gélí zhēng dàn  蛤蜊蒸蛋
Serves 4 to 6

12 or so small clams (see headnote)
Water, as needed
¼ cup/15g finely chopped fresh ginger
½ cup/100g peanut or vegetable oil
Unsalted or lightly salted chicken stock, as needed
½ to 1 teaspoon fish sauce
3 large eggs

1. Scrub the clams and place them in a small pan. Add about an inch of water, cover, and place the pan on high heat. When it comes to a full boil, lower the heat to medium and simmer the clams covered for around 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Pluck out any clams that have already opened and place them in a heatproof bowl. Return the pan to the heat and continue to simmer the remaining clams for another minute or two, until all of them have opened up. If any remain shut at this point, be sure and discard them – do not force them open, as they were dead before they were cooked. Drain all of the cooking liquid through a very fine meshed strainer into a heatproof measuring cup. Add just enough chicken stock to make a full cup of liquid. Stir in the fish sauce to taste.

2. Clean out the saucepan, wipe it very dry, and place both the ginger and oil in it before setting it over medium heat. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain a very gentle bubbling around the ginger, as you want it to slowly release its juices before frying into a toasty brown. Drain the oil through a clean, dry strainer into a heatproof bowl and reserve the toasted ginger.
Simple perfection

3. About 5 minutes before serving, set up a steamer and bring a couple of inches of water to a full boil, then reduce the heat to medium high. While the steamer is heating up, lightly beat the eggs before mixing in in the clam juice/chicken stock. Pour the egg mixture through a strainer into a shallow, heatproof bowl and discard any gelatinous bits caught in the mesh. Set the bowl in the steamer and steam it over medium-high heat for 3 minutes.

4. Carefully remove the bowl and arrange the clams in their shells inside the custard. Sprinkle all of the toasted ginger over them, as well as around 2 tablespoons of the ginger oil. Return the custard to the steamer and steam it for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until the center is barely set; it will continue to cook in the residual heat, so be very careful not to overcook it. Serve immediate with a wide spoon.