Monday, July 17, 2017

Summer on a plate: celtuce tops with sesame

We just got back from Chengdu, and I can’t recommend that city enough. 

The State Department invited us to the capital of Sichuan to talk about food and culture at various venues. It was a hectic schedule, and I'm still recovering, but I have to say that Chengdu is one delightful place to be. Period.

The people there are so nice, the streets are immaculate, and the food, well, the food was simply amazing. It was the height of summer, and nothing refreshed or delighted us more consistently there than celtuce tips with sesame dressing. We had it in restaurants and private homes, and its repeated appearance more than anything else showed us how beloved it is in Sichuan.
Chen's celtuce

Without a doubt, one of the best versions we tasted was at the famous Chen’s Mapo Doufu. This place is, of course, renowned as the originator of that iconic Chengdu dish made out of bean curd, beef, and lots of chile oil. 

And while we found their signature dish just this side of all right, we were blown away by the celtuce. It excited our appetites and made us look forward to the rest of the dinner with eager anticipation, which is what every good appetizer should do.

What they did – and what I’m replicating here – is to add just a suggestion of chile oil to a light, almost fluffy dressing. It definitely wasn’t noticeable unless you were paying very close attention, but it worked well as an undercurrent to jazz up the nutty, sweet, tart, and salty notes. The only complaint we had was that the sugar remained suspended in the dressing as annoying little crystals. Because it remained aloof from this culinary party, the sugar made the dish way sweeter than it should have been. That’s why I use powdered sugar here, which dissolves quickly and quietly into the mixture as a counterbalance to the vinegar.

The other great version we enjoyed was at the home of a friend, whose father, retired chef Yang Guifang, created a feast for us that included kung pao chicken and the best beef over crispy rice I've ever tasted. He allowed me to shadow him in his kitchen and bug him for secrets, so thank you Chef Yang!

Another way in which I’ve changed this up a bit is by using a touch of good soy sauce instead of the usual salt. This dish needs that tiny xianwei (umami) blast, and soy sauce is there to serve with its usual aplomb.
Chef Yang at the helm

The two basic things you need to aim for here in this dish are absolute freshness in the vegetable and nuttiness in the sauce. So, ideally, the day that you plan to serve this is the day that you buy your celtuce. That morning, bring the whole celtuce or celtuce tops home, trim and slice them up as directed, and rinse well before soaking them a couple of hours in ice water, as this will help to crisp them up even more.

Not everyone has the luxury of shopping when it’s best for the vegetables, so if circumstances force you to buy the celtuce a day ahead of time, rinse the vegetables in cold water, shake them dry, wrap them in a tea towel, place the towel in a plastic bag, and refrigerate. Then, trim and slice them as needed before soaking them in the two cold baths of saltwater and ice water to clean them thoroughly and restore their juiciness.

That second point I mentioned was nuttiness, and to achieve that, the sauce calls for three kinds of toasted sesame: paste, oil, and a seed garnish. Together these will supply you with a nice range of warm flavors.

Fresh celtuce heads
However, not all sesame pastes are made alike. If you don’t use either homemade or a good store-bought sesame paste, the flavor might be a bit off. The same thing goes with toasted sesame oil: as always, aim for the absolute best. Korean and Japanese brands are often excellent, and I always buy mine in large (56 ounce/1656 ml) cans because this is a staple in my kitchen.

But that doesn’t mean that only serious Chinese chefs need to be this persnickety about their ingredients. Even if you are just an occasional East Asian cook, buy only pure sesame oil. Look at the ingredient list, which should tell you that it is 100% sesame oil with no fillers, like cottonseed oil and the like. (Kadoya is my go-to brand, but others are available in Asian supermarkets and online.)

As for the sesame seeds, try to get them in bulk bins, where you can smell and taste them for freshness, and then toast them yourself, which will only take a few minutes. You can even go from there to making your own sesame paste. And that will change your world because the flavor is unparalleled.

I get the big tins
If your store-bought sesame paste or sesame oil lacks oompf, substitute a bit of good peanut or almond butter to ramp up the flavors. Or, you can use all peanut or almond butter here (in fact, any good nut butter would do as long as it’s toasty), if you prefer.

One thing that you must pay attention to when you make this is the emulsification of the dressing ingredients. Just as with a good handmade mayonnaise, you need to whip in air while incorporating the ingredients. Ice water is gradually introduced, too, which will lighten the sauce both visually and texturally.

This is actually the secret to making great sesame sauce, because if you leave out the ice water, the texture stays thick and viscous, but the slow addition of ice water smooths out the sticky paste and makes it thin enough to drizzle over the celtuce, while remaining thick enough to cling to the leaves. Finally, the two oils are beaten in and make the dressing stable. This step is not at all hard, but it will make this dish absolutely superb.

Do note that this will make twice the amount needed, but it stores well for a couple of days in the refrigerator and can be used for another round of celtuce or as a new-fangled salad dressing or for cold noodles Sichuan style.

Celtuce tastes very much like romaine lettuce, so if you don’t have access to celtuce, that’s your substitute. Try to use the hearts of the lettuce, as they will be tenderer and milder, as well as easier to serve and eat.

The genuine Chinese vegetable has other attributes, though, that make it well worth seeking it out. For one thing, it’s beautiful. For another thing, it’s crunchy beyond belief. The brilliant jade of the stems also makes them visually tantalizing. Those stems add another layer of texture and flavor to the leaves, so that your tongue and teeth have even more to play with as you ravage your way across the plate.

I have absolutely no control when faced with a perfect plate of celtuce tips with sesame dressing. And I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.

Silky and delicious
Celtuce tips with sesame dressing
Májiàng yóumàicài  麻醬油麥菜
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 head celtuce (around 6 ounces/150 g) that should be mainly composed of young leaves, along with tender stem tips
Ice water and ice cubes, as needed
2 teaspoons sea salt

4 tablespoons toasted sesame paste, well stirred
2 teaspoons powdered sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons pale rice vinegar
2 tablespoons ice water
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1½ teaspoons chile oil, or to taste
½ teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
Celtuce head cut up
1. Rinse the celtuce leaves thoroughly and trim off any tough or damaged parts. Cut the heads lengthwise into sixths or eighths so that you are left with long, thin, easily manageable wedges, and then cut the heads crosswise to make pieces about 3 inches/8 cm long. Set a serving platter in the refrigerator to chill.

2. At least 3 hours before serving, dissolve the salt in about a cup of cold water, toss the celtuce with this, and add more ice water to cover. Soak the celtuce in this saltwater bath for 15 to 30 minutes to cleanse it and reduce any lingering bitterness, then rinse and shake it dry. Finally, soak the celtuce in ice water to cover for at least 2 hours; toss in a good handful of ice cubes to make the leaves super crisp.

3. To make the dressing, use a whisk to beat together the sesame paste, powdered sugar, and soy sauce in a small work bowl until they are very smooth and creamy. Beat in the vinegar until it is smooth, and then slowly beat in the ice water in small dribbles as if you were making mayonnaise by hand, as this will give you the ethereally silky texture this sauce requires. Finally, beat in the sesame oil and chile oil until the dressing is once more smooth and very light. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.

4. Once you have the dressing ready, drain the celtuce and use a salad spinner to remove any remaining water, or else wrap the leaves in a dry tea towel. Arrange the leaves attractively on the chilled platter. Drizzle the dressing over the celtuce leaves, and then sprinkle the sesame seeds on the dressing; you can reserve some of the dressing, if you like, and offer it on the side. Serve immediately.
Bolting head of celtuce

When choosing celtuce leaves, select heads that are stiff with undamaged leaves and freshly cut stems. These are often sold in sealed bags, so you sometimes have to wing it. Even so, try to feel around the middle of the heads to ensure that there are no flowering stems. If the celtuce has started to bolt, it will not be as sweet, and you’ll have fewer leaves since most of the plant’s energy will have been directed toward setting blossoms.

Toasted sesame paste
Májiàng 麻醬
Makes about ¾ cup (160 g)

Unlike the Middle East, which prefers its sesame paste raw, Chinese people like it toasted so that the full flavor of the seeds comes to the forefront. You can buy sesame paste in any Chinese market, but unless you get the right brand, you’ll most likely find it mixed with cottonseed oil or sugar or other unnec­essary ingredients.
Plain but delicious sesame paste

1 cup (140 g) toasted sesame seeds
5 tablespoons or so toasted sesame oil
Sea salt, optional

1. Use a small food processor or a good-quality blender. Pour in the seeds and add a few tablespoons of the oil.

2. Puree the seeds on high, gradually adding the rest of the oil until you have a relatively smooth paste. Season the sesame paste with salt, if you plan to use it like peanut butter, but for Chinese recipes it is best to leave it unsalted. Store the paste in a covered jar in the refrigerator.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Wontons in chile oil

Wontons appear all over southern China. In the United States, we most often see them served Guangdong-style, as shrimp and pork packets floating in a pork broth. Near the Yangtze, wontons are much larger and usually served in pale broths with shreds of omelet, laver seaweed (nori), and green onions.

This wonderful idea traveled west into the chile-laden embrace of Sichuan, where simple pork-filled packets are tossed in an addictively nose tingling sauce. Bright green rings of scallion ornament the top in this refined street food. I used to eat this on bamboo stools at the sides of busy alleys

This particular preparation from Sichuan is my favorite. It’s basically a street food, and I have very fond memories of eating it in busy alleys, sitting on a bamboo stool, watching the world bustle by, and luxuriating in the searing oil biting at my lips and tongue before the sweet porky juice popped out and doused the heat. I’d sweat and smile and order another bowl.

As in most Sichuanese dishes, the chile-laden sauce packs a punch, but here it is sensu­ously tempered by the juicy wonton filling. The sauce will also be slightly diluted by the water that clings to the soft wontons. So, serve extra chile oil or even more of the sauce on the side for those who want to sweat a bit.

The setup
This is an updated version of the recipe that can be found on page 298 of All Under Heaven. I love this recipe so much that I am always making it and fooling around with it, so here are some suggestions that will make your days much easier and much more filled with wontons, which is a great way to live your life.

Making the filling in a food processor really is the way to go here, and it also makes this dish incredibly easy.

Be sure to use 2 packages of wonton wrappers, which will give you a nice surplus of wontons to freeze.

Place the wontons on plastic wrap as you finish making them, as this is so much easier than a tea towel – it might not be traditional, but hey, I’m all about evolution. Be sure and mark up your book accordingly!

To freeze the wontons, freeze them as they are on the lined baking sheets, just be sure that they don’t touch each other. As soon as they are completely solid, transfer them to resealable freezer bags. You should toss these frozen wontons directly into the boiling water without defrosting them first.
Lots of seasoning... yay
Wontons in chile oil
Hóngyóu chăoshŏu  紅油炒手
Makes about 180 wontons and serves a whole lotta people

2 inches (5 cm) fresh ginger, more or less
1½ cups (360 ml) unsalted chicken stock, divided into ½ cup (120 ml) and 1 cup (240 ml)
1½ pounds (500 g) ground pork, preferably around 30 percent fat cut of pork, chilled
Sea salt to taste
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons mild rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
3 green onions, white parts only, trimmed and finely minced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Wonton wrappers:
2 (1 pound, 460 g) packages thin wonton wrappers
Flour for dusting
Sauce (may be doubled)
3 tablespoons red chile oil with toasty bits, or to taste
3 tablespoons light soy sauce, or to taste
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, or to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely minced, optional
Sugar to taste

3 green onions, green parts only, trimmed and cut into thin rounds
Ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns

1. Cut the ginger into roughly ½-inch (1 cm) pieces, then whirl it in a food processor with ½ cup (120 ml) of the stock. Strain the liquid, squeezing out every last drop of ginger-flavored stock into a bowl before discarding the fibrous mass left behind.
Ready to go
2. Place the pork, ginger-flavored stock, salt, eggs, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, the whites of the green onions, sesame oil, and the black pepper in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse in the remaining 1 cup (240 ml) stock in incre­ments so that the pork absorbs all of the liquid. It will be light and fluffy at this point. Chill the filling for an hour or longer, if you have the time, as this will firm it up and make it easier to wrap.

4. Before you start wrapping the wontons, place 2 baking sheets next to your work area, cover them with plastic wrap, and have a couple of extra towels on the side to cover the filled wontons. Place a couple of tablespoons of cool water in a small bowl next to the filling bowl, as well as a flat piece of wood or a small blunt knife. (You’ll use both to wrap the wontons; see the movie below.) If you are going to cook these right away, pour water (at least 8 cups or 2 liters) into a large pot and bring it to a boil just before you are ready to cook. Wrap the wontons as shown below:

6. Mix together the sauce ingredients, taste and adjust the seasoning as desired, and divide the sauce among as many bowls you wish; double the amount of sauce if you really enjoy spicy flavors.

7. To cook the wontons, drop them in small handfuls into the boiling water while stirring with a wooden spoon. As soon as the water returns to a boil, pour in about 1 cup (240 ml) cold water. Bring the pot to a boil again and pour in another cup (240 ml) of cold water. When the pot boils a third time, the wontons should be floating gracefully.

8. Use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to gently remove the wontons into the prepared bowls, draining off as much of the water as you can. Toss them lightly in the sauce and sprinkle with the chopped green onions and the ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns to taste. Serve immediately.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Strange flavor peanuts

The name alone for this dish makes me happy. The other plusses are that these are dead simple to make and are absolutely tasty and crunchy, and are wonderful to have on hand, so prepare to make a lot after this first batch.

“Strange flavor” is a Sichuanese term that is applied to quite a few dishes. Usually it means that there is a complex number of seasonings going on in there that will fight for your attention. In this case, the toasted peanuts are covered with a crispy sugar shell spiced with all sorts of good things – namely smoked paprika, chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, black pepper, and cumin – and balanced with a nice jolt of salt to keep things on track.

These are, in a word, bar snacks with an attitude. And for the record, my husband refers to them as weird nuts.

It used to be that this recipe was a whole lot more difficult to prep, because back in the day we didn’t have peanuts with the skins removed. That meant toasting the nuts and then rubbing them in a towel to knock off most of the bitter red skins. Yes, it wasn’t backbreaking work, but this extra step always made me think twice about dedicating the necessary time to pulling the ingredients together.

Nowadays, Chinese shops and organic markets often have these nude peanuts for sale, so buy a couple of packages when you run across them.

A gorgeous load of spices
The basic recipe for this calls for toasting the peanuts in an oven (a toaster oven works nicely here), tossing them over the heat with a barely caramelized sugar syrup that evenly coats each nut, and then sprinkling in the seasonings, as well as a bit of starch to keep things tidy. You end up with a nice pile of expertly flavored peanuts that gain serious crunch as they cool down.

Once you master this basic recipe, think about the other flavors you like and start experimenting accordingly. Five spice powder works well in here, as does a bit of curry powder or powdered ginger or even pumpkin spice. You can 86 the chiles and amp up other seasonings, or make them relatively mild when you have kids ready to pounce on them.

The only caveat would be to not add anything moist, like fresh garlic or ginger or green onions. The seasonings have to be absolutely dry so that the crunchy shell doesn’t melt and goo up.

The basic recipe for toasted peanuts is something you should have in your permanent repertoire. It’s super easy and a whole lot tidier to make than fried nuts. I’ll set it off below the main recipe here so that you can refer to it as needed, and it is also included on page 411 of All Under Heaven.

Strange flavor peanuts
Guàiwèi huāshēng  怪味花生
Makes about 3 cups
Caramelization is underway

1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground chiles
1 tablespoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Spray oil, if using foil for the baking tray
1 cup (225 g) sugar
¾ cup (180 ml) water
1 pound (450 g) toasted skinless peanuts (see recipe below)

1. Combine the spices, salt, and cornstarch in a small work bowl. Have a large, rimmed baking tray ready and line it with Silpat or foil sprayed with oil.

2. Place the sugar and water in a wok and swirl them around a few times to ensure that the sugar is wetted all the way through. Bring the sugar water to a boil over medium heat, swirling it now and then. Cover the pan for about a minute so that the steam will wash down any crystals, and then turn the heat up to medium high. Swirl the pan now and then, rather than stir it, and as soon as it takes on a golden tinge (but is not yet caramel), toss in all of the peanuts.

3. Use a spatula to toss the peanuts in the nuts until they are thoroughly coated. Remove the wok from the heat as you rapidly sprinkle the spice mixture over them, and then return to the heat as you quickly toss them to distribute the seasonings evenly.

4. Remove the wok from the heat and wait about 30 seconds for the sugar coating to start to cool down and harden. Then, scrape the nuts onto the lined baking tray. Scoot the nuts around to separate them as much as possible. Cool the nuts thoroughly and store in a closed container.
The sugars turn golden...

Toasted peanuts
Kăo huāshēng 烤花生
Makes about 3 cups
Toasted skinless peanuts

1 pound (450 g) raw peanuts, with or without the skins

1. Heat the oven or a toaster oven to 275°F (135°C). Place the peanuts in a baking pan large enough to hold them in a single layer – the bottom of the broiler pan that may have come with your oven works well. Put the peanuts in the oven.

2. Slowly toast the nuts for about 1½ hours. Because the edges of your pan will be hotter than the center, you’ll want to shake the pan once in a while and stir the nuts occasionally. When the peanuts start to smell cooked and begin to split along the center, taste one; if the rawness seems to have disappeared, taste a couple more from different parts of the pan just to be sure. It doesn’t matter if the nuts are crisp yet, as that will happen once they cool down.

3. Pour the peanuts into a wide, heatproof bowl and let them come to room temperature. Store in a sealed container.