Monday, February 23, 2015

New Year cake as approved by Mr. Enzo

Last Thursday was the first day of the Year of the Ram, and homemade sweets are definitely in order for this two week celebration. Some tasty candied almonds might be the perfect offering for family and friends, or perhaps a plate of laughing doughnut holes. The main point is that people should have a wonderful time, and food always is important to achieving that, at least in our home.

One of our favorite New Year sweets is this, a Cantonese steamed cake that is lightly sweet and takes all of about 5 minutes to put together. This fluffy confection looks very much like an English sponge cake, so my guess that Chinese cooks transmogrified a European recipe to fit local tastes, for soy sauce gives the cake its rich color and a subtle suggestion of xianwei to this dim sum teahouse classic.

Never content to let good enough alone, I was tweaking this recipe lately, trying to make it perfect with just the right balance of sweet-salty-creamy, and so I ended up with a whole bunch of different takes on this recipe. The last two contenders were submitted to our resident food critic, 20-month-old Mr. Enzo, who declared this one the winner in the accompanying video.

Not only that, but when reviewing this short film, he said “好吃!” (Delicious!) – and I am proud to say that this was the first time he ever said that – as he recalled his meal. My favorite part in the clip is when he lingers over the two versions before settling on the pale cake. Yes, the boy has taste.

Malay Sponge Cake
Mǎlāgāo 馬拉糕
Beat eggs until light
Guangdong and Hong Kong
Serves 8

Spray oil
2 large eggs, room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
7 tablespoons milk (whole or low fat)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 cup cake flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder

1. Heat the water under a steamer to boiling, then reduce the heat to low. Spray an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan with oil and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Steam until done

2. Use a hand mixer to whisk the eggs until light and airy, and then slowly beat in the sugar, oil, milk, vanilla, and soy sauce. In a separate bowl toss together the flour and baking powder, then beat this into the egg mixture until the batter is smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and steam the cake for around 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan, then remove it and cut it into wedges.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A delicious case for pig ears

"Should anyone ever invite you to sample pressed pig's ear, think very carefully before putting it in your mouth. If chewing on something with the texture of raw kneecap and the flavor profile of a vinyl raincoat appeals, then clearly that pressed pig's ear is for you. Don't hold back. Knock yourself out. Otherwise I can't recommend it."

So writes the very funny Jay Rayner about his search for the perfect meal in The Man Who Ate the World. That London Chinatown restaurant must have done something terribly wrong, because he goes on to write,  "I don't care if it's what real Chinese peasants eat. I don't care if Shanghai is overrun by earless pigs because it's so popular. It's horrible and I won't eat it ever again."

Almost Art Deco
I'm so happy that I fell in love with pig ears long, long before I happened to read his words. In Taipei, I enjoyed them in my favorite Hunan restaurants sliced into razor-thin shreds, tossed with a confetti of green onions, and glistening with smoky chili oil. 

At the Shanghai-style place downtown, they were always dark and deeply redolent of soy and warm spices, the cartilage a soft afterthought in the warm pile of pillow-soft slices drizzled with sesame oil and spiked with star anise.

But one place in particular made them in a way that still gives me tingles of pleasure: it was an underground shrine to the greatness that is Jiangsu's cuisine on the East China coast. It was a place where every dish, no matter how small or cheap, was an excuse for the chef to pull out the stops. In his version, the pale ribbons were encased in a cool gelee that tasted of Shaoxing rice wine, soy sauce, and spices. A touch of ginger could be felt if you paid special attention, and they were invariably fanned out like Art Nouveau-patterned dominoes on a white plate with a shallow saucer of dark vinegar and finely shredded young ginger.
These are almost sexy

Turning a pig's ear into a work of art is (in my book, at least) a sign of genius. Today's dish is one such masterpiece.

A lot of this has to do with where the dish came from. In the north part of Jiangsu province lies one of the culinary motherlodes of the entire world: Yangzhou. This city is practically unknown outside of China, but to a people who love to eat like no other, Yangzhou is pretty close to heaven on earth.

In fact, this entire area -- from Anhui and Henan in the west and stretching out along the Yangtze River all the way to the Pacific Ocean at Shanghai -- is remarkably inventive with its abundant ingredients, plus its chefs are somehow blessed with the ability to turn even the least important part of animals into divine dishes that defy you not to fall in love.

Which leads us to Suqian. A few miles north of Yangzhou in Jiangsu's northern culinary wonderland lies a city that been occupied pretty much constantly for at least 50,000 years. Part of this has to do with the freshwater lakes and the many rivers that have supplied humans for millennia with great things to eat. And it also has to do with the local salt deposits, one of those singular magnets for humans throughout history. Whatever it is, the food in this area of China is magnificent.

The thing that never ceases to amaze and inspire me, though, is what the people around here have done with this abundance. In a place where food is so plentiful and good, you might expect waste on the level of the average American. But here, even the most peripheral parts of the pig are prized.

Pig ears. To most Westerners, those are doggy treats and little more. But when a good chef from Suqian (or just about everywhere else in China, for that matter) gets hold of some fresh ears, that is a time when diners should perch happily on their seats, for something good is about to happen.
If you've never had pig ears before, a bit of explanation is in order as to why in the world people would want to not only cook with them, but actually stick them in their mouths. They don't look very encouraging -- there's no denying these look and feel like pig ears because even the skin is still on them -- and there's little meat to be had. 
The base of a pig's ear

In these triangular appendages there's a fine layer of muscle down toward the bottom near where the ear attaches to the head so that they can be flapped around to scare off flies. But soon the muscle (aka meat) disappears and both the cartilage and skin take over. In fact, if you cut an ear in half down the middle, you'll see little but a tough white layer of cartilage (that's what allows the ears to be perky instead of flapping around the pig's face like a basset hound) enclosed on both sides by white or pale pink skin. You might very well ask, what could be tasty about that? Therein lies the magic.

The cartilage and the skin are tough, no doubt about it, but a slow simmer turns the stiff center into a barely crisp layer and the skin into a trembling mass that leaches collagen into the stock, making an aspic-like gelatin. That's the easy part. What a good Jiangsu chef does is then transform it from humble to divine.

After a quick blanching to remove any impurities, the ears are slowly, gently poached in a heady broth filled with spices and aromatics. These seep into the pores and insinuate themselves into every bit of that skin. The slow heat breaks down the cartilage, too, and turns it so soft and malleable that the ears become as relaxed as a sleeping cat. They then fold into beautiful patterns, curling and bending and making this a remarkably gorgeous dish.

But what about the flavor? That lies solely in the sauce. Pig ears have little flavor on their own, and like tendons and swallow nests and shark fin and fish stomachs, they are along for the ride mainly for their texture and collagen. A master chef will take these blank canvases and then exalt them into China's culinary stratosphere via balanced flavors that heighten the textures, encouraging these tough cookies to soften up and turn from inedible into delightful.

Here, the good folks of Suqian rely on a vibrant braising sauce of soy, Shaoxing rice wine, a touch of sugar and vinegar, and a whole bunch of spices and aromatics. I've subbed in some oyster sauce, which adds a very ancient echo of the sea, and a small touch of dried chili peppers to bring a slight afterburn on the palate, waking it up and making the mouth ask for more.

This needs nothing more than some thinly julienned green onions or young white ginger, plus some dark vinegar to balance out the flavors and add a refreshing touch.

I feel your pain, Mr. Rayner. But trust me: close your eyes, open wide, and try this.

Pig ear gelee Suqian style
Sùqiān zhūěr dòng 宿遷豬耳凍 
The main ingredient

Serves 8 to 12 as an appetizer

Pig ears:
3 fresh pig ears
Boiling water
1 teaspoon sea salt

4 green onions, trimmed
1 piece of fresh ginger the size of an egg, peeled
2 dried Thai chilies
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
6 whole star anise
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine
½ cup oyster sauce
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
Freshly-ground black pepper to taste
Filtered water

Dipping sauce:
1 green onion, trimmed OR 1 small finger of young white ginger
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons rice or apple cider vinegar

1. Start this at least a day (and up to a week) before you want to serve it. Scrub the ears well and trim off any less-than-perfect spots. The tips of the ears can be dark and there can be natural pigmentation on the skin, as these will disappear once the ears are cooked. Don't worry about any very fine hairs, as most of these will loosen and fall off as the ears simmer away.

2. Place the ears in a medium saucepan and cover with boiling water; add the salt. Bring the water to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the ears for about 10 minutes, and then drain them in a colander set in the sink. Rinse the ears with cool running water and let them drain.
Cook til totally tender

3. Cut the onions into 2-inch lengths and slice the ginger into thin pieces. Break the chilies in half and shake out the seeds. Place the green onions, ginger, chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, and star anise in a wok without any oil and heat them over medium-high for a few minutes to release their fragrance. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients up to the black pepper and then place the blanched ears in the pan. Pour in enough water to cover the ears by about half an inch. Bring the pan to a full boil and then reduce the heat to very low so that the sauce is barely bubbling around the edge. Cover the pan lightly so that the steam can escape, and cook the ears for around 4 hours, adding a bit more water as needed to keep the ears covered. Test the ears by piercing the base of the ears with a wooden chopstick; it should easily go through, but the skin on the ears should not be falling apart.
Submerge the ears

4. While the ears are cooking, prepare a loaf pan (just about any size is fine) by rinsing it out with water. When the ears are done, carefully lift them up one by one with chopsticks and a slotted spoon, and shake off any of the spices or aromatics. Place the ears in the loaf pan, scooting them around so that they are folded and curled rather than lying flat.

5. Use a fine strainer to strain the sauce into another pan; discard the solids. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Bring the sauce to a full boil over high heat and skim off any foam or scum that forms. Reduce the sauce to about 2 cups; it should be shiny and thick, like hot molasses. Pour this over the ears in the pan. Use a spatula to gently press down on the ears to release any air bubbles and to make them as submerged as possible in the sauce. Let the pan come to room temperature, cover, and chill overnight.

6. Run hot tap water over the bottom and sides of the loaf pan to help loosen the gelee. Plop it out onto a cutting board and then slice it however you like. (I prefer to cut the gelee in half lengthwise and then crosswise into ½-inch slices.) Arrange the slices attractively on a serving plate.

7. Finely sliver the green onion or young ginger and place it in a shallow saucer or a small bowl. Pour the vinegars around the julienne and then serve it alongside the gelee as a dip. Small shards of the ginger or onion should be plucked up when the gelee is dipped so that tiny contrasting tastes are had with each bite.


Pig ears can be found at specialty butcher shops, as well as at Chinese and Latino markets. They will be either fresh or frozen.

Floppy cooked ears
The entire boned pig face can be cooked this way, too, and offers even more meat and interesting textures; the sauce and dipping sauce will have to be increased accordingly, of course, but otherwise it is basically cooked the same way.

Do not add any oil to the cooking or dipping sauces, as one of the charms of this dish is its light, fat-free flavor and texture. It seems odd, as it is pork, but the flavors should be pure and clean, and the absence of fat is what allows this to happen.

Be sure and keep the ears barely simmering rather than boiling. If the heat is too high, the gelee will be cloudy at the very least, and even worse, the ears might become mushy or scorched.

This dish keeps well for many days in the refrigerator, which makes it an excellent candidate for busy dinners.

The Sichuan peppercorns are added to dishes like this to help get rid of fusty pork smells, so you won't really taste them. Rice wine performs a similar role here, acting more as a deodorizer than a dominant flavor.

Don't add more chilies to the sauce, even if you are a dedicated lover of capiscum, for they would overpower the flavors and textures.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Midwinter soup from Ningxia

The longest night of the year is a time for celebration in China. And that means that it’s a time for eating traditional foods. The Winter Solstice usually occurs on December 21 or 22, as its arrival is determined by the lunar calendar. My husband and his family always look forward to bowls of sweet sticky rice balls (tangyuan) that evening. However, depending upon where you are, this cold night might instead be a time to enjoy some Jiaozi or lamb soup. 

Ningxia puts a special spin on this custom, for the Winter Solstice means one thing and one thing only: a big bowl of spicy lamb soup with thick batons of mung bean jelly (or liangfen) floating in there among some mushrooms and tomatoes. And, I have to tell you, the liangfen is a touch of genius: the cubes turn into enticing, gently textured pillows that really stand out against the rich bits of lamb.
The liangfen starts out white

Some people also toss in chunks of potatoes or some Jiaozi, but since this is best served with bread, I find they turn this into a bit of a carb overload. Just have the jelly ready to go before you start this recipe, and this will come together instantly.

Ningxia Midwinter Soup
Níngxià yángròu fěntāng  寧夏羊肉粉湯
The Northwest
Serves 2 as a main meal

3 or more ounces boneless lamb or goat meat
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
Making this jelly is a snap
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons shredded fresh ginger
3 green onions, trimmed and julienned, whites and greens kept separate
1 teaspoon coarse chili powder, or less if you are chili-adverse
½ teaspoon five-spice powder 
4 black mushrooms, fresh or dried and plumped up, trimmed and thinly sliced
4 whole canned Roma tomatoes, cut into ¼-inch slices
2 teaspoons black vinegar, or to taste
4 cups unsalted mushroom stock or water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
I recipe for Mung Bean Jelly, through Step 2

To serve:
Handful of cilantro
Marinate the meat -- I used goat
Grilled Breads, or any other raised baked breads from this region

1. Cut the lamb into ¼-inch strips. Place them in a small work bowl and toss with both kinds of soy sauce. While this is marinating, prepare the rest of the ingredients. If you have any bones or fat on the meat, consider tossing this into the stock for extra flavor; remove them before you pour the stock into the vegetables.

2. Set a wok over medium-high heat and add the oil when it is hot. Swirl it around and add the ginger and onion whites. As soon as they are fragrant, sprinkle in the lamb and marinade, and toss these around until the lamb is barely done. Scoop this out into a clean work bowl, but drain the oil back into the wok.

Mushrooms with spices
3. Over medium heat, add the chili powder and five-spice powder to the oil and swirl them around before raising the heat to medium-high and adding the mushrooms. Toss these quickly to release their fragrance, and then add the tomatoes and vinegar. Pour in the stock or water and bring this to a boil before lower the heat to a simmer. The soup can be made ahead up to this point.

4. Cut the mung bean jelly into fat batons around ¾-inch wide and an inch or so long, or whatever size you like. Slide these into the soup and simmer them gently for around 10 minutes to heat through; they will turn from an opaque white to almost translucent. Add the lamb, then taste and adjust the seasoning with whatever you like. Ladle the soup into large bowls, top with the finely chopped onion greens and coarsely chopped cilantro, and serve with the bread, which may be torn into smallish pieces and tossed into the soup.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Taiwanese capers, for real

The first time I visited the village of Wulai in the mountains outside of Taipei, I had only been in Taiwan for a couple of months. This was a local tourist destination famous for its hot springs, and it also offered lots of shows by the native Atayal people. My favorite was The King impersonator who did a great job transporting Vegas Elvis across the ocean into a sequined white suit with lots of fringes. He sang pretty well, too. But that was my sum impression of Wulai until a friend took me there for lunch. And then I had some fish.

The day didn’t start out as anything special: we took a bus up the winding road into town, roamed around the few streets, admired the enormous piles of fruit the area produced, and studied countless red plastic trays piled with the produce and proteins that each little restaurant displayed outside the front door.

My friend settled on one place overlooking a meandering creek, and I was delighted when I spied some very tender bird’s nest fern fronds (shānsū 山酥) that a proprietress assured me would be great in a stir-fry, and they did actually turn out to be just as soft and slippery as I’d hoped against some chewy pork shreds decorated with fermented black beans.

Then came a steamed freshwater fish adorned with ochre beads that I could not identify. My friend called them pòbùzi 破布子, which must be a transliteration of some local name, since i just means “broken cloth seed.” Their flavor really made my taste buds stand up, because they were like capers crossed with soy sauce, and they formed the perfect complement to the tender fish. I have come to call them “Taiwanese capers.” They have hard pits inside, just like olives, so be sure not to feed them to children and others who might crack a tooth if they’re not careful.

These capers are sold in jars in the pickle section of many Chinese groceries under a variety of names, like shùzǐ 子 or yīnshùzǐ 蔭, so the main thing to look out for are the little fleshy seeds floating in a clear brine.

Steamed fish with Taiwanese capers
Pòbùzǐ zhēngyú 破布子蒸魚
Serves 2

8 ounces fish filets (flatfish works beautifully), or a small whole fish
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1½ tablespoons mild rice wine
1 tablespoon finely shredded fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 red jalapeño pepper, seeded and julienned
1 green onion, the whites and greens kept separate, trimmed and julienned
¼ cup Taiwanese capers, plus a bit of the brine
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil

1. Pat the fish dry and lay it on a rimmed plate that will fit easily into your steamer.  Sprinkle the salt and rice wine over it and let it marinate for about 15 minutes. Pour off any liquid that accumulates on the plate.

2. Sprinkle the top of the fish with the ginger, garlic, chili pepper, and the whites of the onion, as well as the capers and their brine. Steam the fish until it is just done, which will depend upon your fish and the heat of your stove—start checking at around 7 minutes. When you can effortlessly insert a chopstick in the thickest part of the fish, remove the plate from the steamer and pour off the salty juices.

3. Array the onion greens down the center of the fish and drizzle the soy sauce on top. Heat the oil in a wok until it almost starts to smoke, and then pour this evenly over the green onions. Serve hot.