Monday, July 22, 2019

Longan tea with fresh ginger

 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 龍眼. In Mandarin, it’s called lóngyăn, and this 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.

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
1 cup | 500 ml (or so) dried pitted and peeled longans
8 cups | 2 liters 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, July 15, 2019

Guilin rice noodles

Today’s dish combines last week’s braised beef shanks with pickles in what has to be one of the most sublime pairings I’ve ever enjoyed. What’s more, the main components of this noodle soup – namely the braised beef and the pickled long beans – can be either store-bought or made at home long in advance, which means that this is a really easy recipe to pull together.

I would, of course, strongly urge you to make both of these yourself. Like I already showed you, these Muslim-style shanks are simply divine and can be cooked with very little effort. The pickled green beans are super easy, too, if you already have a crock filled with the aromatic brine from traditional Sichuan-style pickles that we explored a couple of years ago. This traditional way to ferment pickles has become one of the most popular recipes I’ve ever posted on this blog, and I really urge you to get a crock going in your kitchen ASAP.
After three weeks in a delicious brine

It’s hard to describe just how tasty these beans are, but here goes: While commercial ones may be dully green, soft, and sour, these homemade ones posses a much brighter olive color, are gently crispy, and have a lovely range of flavors hiding inside their skins - juices that squish out onto your tongue with each bite and turn this simple street snack into what might easily become an addiction. Of course, if you don't have a nice bunch of these at the ready, just about any other crunchy green Chinese pickle will do, including the cabbage in that main Sichuan recipe or even Shanghai mustard pickles.

Many classic Guangxi dishes as prepared in the bigger cities and lowlands combine local ingredients with Cantonese techniques, but the cuisine does an about-face as one moves into higher altitudes, for it ends up looking and tasting much more like the cooking of its northwestern neighbor, Guizhou. 

Fresh long beans ready for the crock
This is most likely the one dish that the beautiful city of Guilin is most famous for among the Chinese, and pork is the usual meat component here, but those braised shanks work like a dream, too.

So, if you have the ingredients mentioned here already made, you can have a steaming bowl of noodles in a flash.

Guilin rice noodles

Guìlín mĭfěn 桂林米粉 
Serves 2
Thin slices of braised beef shin

1 pound | 500 g fresh rice noodles
Boiling water as needed
½ cup (or so) pickled long beans, or other pickled vegetables, chopped and rinsed with boiling water
10 (or so) thin slices braised beef shank, plus some of the braising sauce
Large handful of coarsely chopped cilantro
2 scallions, finely chopped
Finely ground chile peppers, to taste
1 handful fried soybeans or peanuts

Fresh rice noodles & green onions
1. Place the rice noodles in a wide colander and separate them as much as possible. Put the colander in the sink and run boiling water over them. Shake the colander to fluff up the noodles, and then divide them between two large soup bowls.

2. Arrange the beef slices and pickles on top of the noodles and drizzle in about ¼ cup of the braising liquid. Pour enough boiling water into each bowl so that about an inch of the noodles is peeking out. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Divide the cilantro and green onions among the bowls, and sprinkle on some ground chili pepper, if you like. Toss and eat.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Smoked fish the Hunan way

Most folks who have experienced Chinese food only in Chinatown restaurants haven’t the slightest idea that smoked foods are a big deal in the motherland. 

It’s amazing, but just about every region has its own take on smoked meat, fish, and poultry, and they all have tiny variations that act as clues to where that dish originated. Sometimes it’s a huge sign, like lamb in Henan near the desert regions, and in other dishes the signposts lie within the potpourri of spices that perfume the marinade or the smoking mixture or even both.

Slash down both sides
Where they almost all are alike is that the animal is first cooked — usually by steaming or braising — while smoking it over tea leaves, rice, and sugar is a final fillip that seasons and colors, but no more.

This fish is pretty unique in that the fish is actually cooked over the smoke. To achieve this, slow-burning wood chips are used instead of the tealeaves and rice, which ignite quickly once they have sugar as a starter, and so heats up the fish slowly while seasoning every morsel. (Here's the link to directions on setting up a homemade smoker.) The name of this way of cooking says it all: shengxun, or “raw smoked.” And if you get your hands on a fish with a really buttery texture, like sablefish, it will turn into an amazingly creamy mouthful tinged with a healthy perfume of smoke. 

Grate your ginger
You can make this well ahead of a dinner party by marinating the fish and then freezing it. The smoking process can be done without much effort, but even then, they can be done a day or two in advance. The fish only needs to be heated up before serving.

Smoked whole fish Hunan style
Shēngxūn yú  生薰魚
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multi-course meal, or 3 to 4 as a main entrée

One 2½-pound | a generous 1 kg whole fish (see Tip)
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine

Wood chip smoking nest
2 large handfuls of applewood smoking chips
¼ cup | 55 g raw rice of any kind
¼ cup | 25 g dry tea leaves of any kind
¼ cup | 30 g sugar of any kind
2 tablespoons sea salt

Finishing touches:

2 tablespoons finely grated ginger
¼ cup | 60 ml black rice vinegar
½ bunch cilantro, trimmed and chopped
¼ cup | 60 ml chile oil
2 tablespoons good salt, like a fleur de sel
¼ cup | 60 ml toasted sesame oil

Pre-smoked fish
1. Start this at least a couple of hours before serving. Clean and scale the fish, remove the gills and fins (keep or remove the head and tail, depending upon the size of your smoker and fish), and rinse it thoroughly under cool running water. Pat it dry with a paper towel, and then cut two long gashes down the sides of the fish parallel to, and about one inch | 2 cm from, the backbone.

2. Mix together the grated ginger, green onions, Sichuan peppercorns, and salt, and then rub a third of this mixture respectively into the insides of the fish and into both sides, paying particular attention to the long gash. Place the fish into a large, clean plastic bag and pour the wine into the insides and onto both sides of the fish. Tie the bag shut, place it on a plate, and refrigerate it for 2 to 8 hours to marinate.

Smoked and gorgeous

3. Prepare your smoker, lining the bottom with some foil. Spray the grate that lies over the center of the smoker with oil. Scatter the dry wood chips in an even layer on top of the foil. Place the covered smoker to the rear of your stove, turn the fan on high and open some windows for cross-ventilation, and turn the heat under the smoker to high.

4. While the smoker is heating up, remove the fish from the bag and knock off all of the aromatics from both inside and outside the fish, including the gashes. When the smoker starts to have little tendrils of smoke come out of it, place the fish right-side up on the grate, immediately cover the smoker, and lower the heat under the smoker to medium-high. Smoke the fish for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until it is almost — but not quite — done.

5. Mix together the rice, tea leaves, sugar, and salt. Remove the grate with the fish on it and sprinkle the rice mixture over the embers in the smoker. Return the grate with the fish to the smoker, cover it, return it to smoke for another minute or two at medium-high heat, and then immediately move the smoker off of the hot burner. Let the smoker cool down with the lid on and the fish inside it so that the fish is slowly seasoned by the tea. (The fish may be prepared up to this point ahead of time, cooled to room temperature, and refrigerated. When you are ready to serve it, warm the fish in a 275°F oven until heated through.)

6. While you are waiting, prepare the various condiments: combine the vinegar and ginger in a small bowl, and use other bowls or saucers of appropriate sizes to separately hold the cilantro, chile oil, and salt.

Liked smoked butter. Really.
7. Remove the fish to a serving platter. Just before serving, heat the sesame oil in a wok until it starts to smoke, and then pour the hot oil all over the fish. Serve it with the condiments. To eat, use chopsticks to pluck off chunks of the fish and dip them in the various sides as desired.

The best fish for this type of preparation is one with a buttery texture, like a small sablefish, amberjack, sea bass, or yellowtail. Get one that fits your smoker, so if you need to settle for a fish that is around 1½ pounds | 750 g, just adjust the seasonings accordingly. The main thing you want to pay attention to is the amount of salt, as extra ginger, green onions, etc., will not vastly change the flavor.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Homemade condensed milk + Vietnamese coffee + a recipe from Nigella

One of my favorite ingredients is sweetened condensed milk. It adds a terrific edge to a wide variety of Chinese desserts and beverages. Also, where would an afternoon break starring Vietnamese coffee (see the quick recipe below) be without it?

My main problem is quality. A small can of the regular stuff at a Chinese market isn't at all expensive (about $1.50), but organic condensed milk will set you back around $3.50. And, no matter what you get, it's full of sugar, and I for one can always do with a lot less calories in my food. 

I recently came across a recipe for homemade condensed milk in a French cookbook, but the proportions were so off the mark that I won't even mention the book's name. Let's just say that I went to work and came up with something really lovely.

Not so secret ingredients
To cut back on the glycemic load, I use coconut sugar, which is a lot easier on my metabolism than regular white sugar, and it also lends the condensed milk a gentle tan color that I like. Then, I got my hands on some organic powdered milk from Whole Foods and went to town. Powdered milk is almost always nonfat, which is why there's a healthy dollop of butter in the mix, and I like it with a bit of salt to tame the sweetness and round out the flavors.

The result has a good balance of that heady milkiness I love with a sweet note that doesn't curl my teeth, plus a caramel edge to the color and the flavor. It's great in drinks with boba (black pearl tapioca), dessert soups laced with tiny beads of tapioca, and also as a dip for deep-fried Chinese steamed bread. Feel free to play with this recipe and adjust the sweetness with more or less sugar, or with a sugar substitute (see Tips).

This recipe makes a whole lot - perhaps more than you think you'll need - but you can cut it in half with no problem, except for that you'll be wishing you'd made a whole lot more.

Highly recommended

Another way to enjoy condensed milk in all its glory is in the recipe below by Nigella Lawson that she was gracious enough to allow me to reproduce here. This delicious recipe is featured in her wonderful Nigellissima, and I must urge you to try both the book and this super indulgent recipe for coffee ice cream.

So, here it is au naturel, along with the usual personal variations at the end. I never can leave well enough alone...

Homemade sweetened condensed milk
Zìzhì liànrǔ  自制煉乳
Makes about 4½ cups

2 cups boiling water, plus more as needed
1¾ cups coconut sugar (see Tip)
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup salted butter, cut into small pieces
3 cups organic powdered milk

1. Pour the boiling water into your blender and add the sugar and butter. Blend them together on low to combine.

2. Add the powdered milk in a couple of increments, blending the mixture thoroughly on medium speed each time to combine. Continue to blend on medium to completely dissolve all of the milk granules. (If you blast it on high, a sticky foam will form, which is not bad, but it's just not all that useful.) Drizzle in more hot water if you want this thinner.

3. Pour the condensed milk into a very clean container, cool down completely, cover, and refrigerate. It will thicken up considerably once it has chilled. Use it up within a couple of weeks, but that should not be difficult.


I like coconut sugar here, but sugar substitutes like "light" sugar (half sugar, half Stevia) can be used, or you can use ½ cup of honey or agave syrup instead of 1 cup of the sugar to give it a richer flavor. 

Coconut sugar thickens the milk up quite a bit, so if you want to use plain sugar or other sugars, start out with only 1 cup of boiling water and add more in small increments until the milk has the consistency you like.
My Vietnamese coffee fix

When you come across a recipe that calls for a 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk, do note that this equals the weight of the milk, not volume. So, substitute 1⅓ cups of this luscious homemade goo per can. 

Quick Vietnamese coffee
Makes 1 cup and serves 2

1 cup hot espresso

Sweetened condensed milk

Just stir however much of the condensed milk you like into the hot espresso. Done. Excellent over ice, too.


Nigella Lawson's one-step no-churn coffee ice cream
Makes 1½ pints

1¼ cups heavy cream
⅔ cup sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder (Medaglia d'Oro is good)
2 tablespoons espresso liqueur (like Kahlúa)

Whisk all the ingredients together until soft peaks form, and you have a gorgeous, caffe-latte-colored airy mixture, and then fill 2 x 1-pint airtight containers, and freeze for 6 hours or overnight. Serve straight from the freezer.


I have to admit that I am even lazier than this recipe requires, since I don't want to deal with whipping the cream and so just toss everything into my ice cream maker and let it do all the work. 

Here, now, are some variations to have and to hold:

All you need is love... & this
1. Soak ½ cup dried longans (dragon eye fruit) in boiling water until plumped up, and then add them to the ice cream. They go amazingly well with the coffee flavor, and the soaking liquid is delicious as a beverage, too.

2. Fold in a big handful of chopped toasted nuts (think pecans, please) or chopped dark chocolate.

3. Serve this on top of broken buttered toast – my favorite: Toast thin slices of your favorite bread until crispy, spread it with salted butter (the salt is important here), break it up into a bowl, and scoop the ice cream on top. Curl up on the couch and watch your favorite movie. You’re welcome.