Monday, June 29, 2015

Time to break out my favorite Chinese salad...

Summer Solstice was last week, and I don't know about you, but I always get sad on this day knowing that the days will start to grow shorter. I luxuriate in the long days and short nights of summer, feeling less lazy if I get up late since I know there will be plenty of sunlight throughout the evening. Perhaps I should grow wings and learn to migrate...

But autumn does have its definite good points, cooler weather being one. Until then, summer has finally hit the inland parts of our area with a blazing vengeance.  
Cool, crisp cucumbers

Last night the thought of actually cooking something seemed way beyond my abilities, so I dug around in the fridge and pantry and came up with the main ingredients for one of the best summer dishes around.  Its Chinese name is pretty prosaic and not really up to the challenge of stimulating a heat-ravaged appetite - shredded chicken with mung bean sheets - so I'll tell you what I usually call it: Manchurian chicken salad.

This is a popular appetizer in the northern provinces, with lots of places laying claim to inventing it, and who wouldn't want credit for something this tasty and easy? But from what I've been able to ferret out from following its sesame-scented trail, this is a native of China's far northeast, the New England - if you will - of China.

Fenpi from Tianjin
The only unusual ingredient is the dried mung bean sheets (fenpi), but you'll find this in just about any Chinese grocery, and it is quite happy to sit around on your shelf for ages. (Try it too in a No Excuses Tomato Casserole with Mung Bean Sheets.) The labels will have different translations of what it is, like "green beans starch sheet" in the photo on the right, but check out what the actual sheets look like down on the left. Also, there will often be something on the package that says it's from the port city of Tianjin, which tells you you're on the right track. If you don't have access to fenpi, whip up the basic ingredient in this super delicious summer recipe that calls for mung bean powder, and you'll be in business.

Tender little cucumbers bring a ray of cooling summer freshness to this dish, and I like to have leftover chicken on hand anyway whenever the heat takes off; in this case I bought a whole roasted chicken at a local farmers' market. However, if you don't have any chicken on hand, steam a couple of boneless breasts while the mung bean sheets are soaking, and they'll be ready in no time.

Dried fenpi
Mustard is a relative newcomer to Chinese cuisine, but it's entrenched itself firmly into many local dishes. Cantonese dim sum would be unthinkable to me without the sharp bite of Colman's mustard to cut the rich pork that adorns so many of its dishes. You can use Colman's here, too, by just mixing the powder with enough water to give it a creamy consistency. And that would be fine. But it wouldn't be great.

To really kick this dressing over the edge, use a nice Dijon-style mustard. It has a mellower edge that cozies up really well with the sesame paste. Bits of green onion and raw ginger give enough zip to entertain your taste buds, so the addition of a hot mustard here to my mind just ends up being startling instead of tasty.

The perfect dressing
Traditionally, this dressing is not cooked, but I've found that mixing it together in a small skillet brings the flavors together more and mellows them out. It also gives the sesame paste the chance to melt and smooth out, so you don't get any lumps.

This recipe makes twice the amount of dressing you'll need for an appetizer, but I am firm in recommending that you make this extra amount because it is a fabulous salad dressing. In fact, last night I whacked up a head of lettuce and divided it among two big dinner plates. Then, I layered this appetizer over each of the piles of lettuce and had an incredibly good salad. And the dressing was the exact amount needed.

You can make your own sesame paste, by the way, especially if you have a cup or so of Toasted Sesame Seeds.  Just whiz it away in a blender with some roasted sesame oil, and you're in business. It's really really cheap this way and tastes miles and away better than anything you can find in a store.

Manchurian chicken salad 
Jīsī lāpí  雞絲拉皮 
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer, or 2 to 3 as an entree

Bean sheets:
3 sheets dried mung bean sheets (fenpi)
Boiling water to cover
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil 

Chicken and cukes:
12 to 16 ounces cooked, boneless chicken
2 Persian (or other small seedless) cucumbers

1 inch fresh ginger, peeled
1 green onion, green part only
½ cup toasted sesame paste
½ cup toasted sesame oil 
2 tablespoons good dark vinegar (like balsamic)
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup light soy sauce
3 tablespoons prepared mustard (Dijon is great here)
¼ cup water

2 tablespoons Toasted Sesame Seeds
Small bunch of cilantro, optional

Soaking the fenpi
1. Place the dried mung bean sheets in a large work bowl and pour the boiling water over them to cover. The sheets will begin to soften in a few minutes, so if any areas are sticking above the water, use your tongs to jab them down under. Allow the sheets to soak and rehydrate for about half an hour while you prepare the rest of the meal. (If you are making this a couple hours ahead of time, soak the mung bean strips during the last hour so that they don't become an unmanageable tangle.)

2. Shred or cut the chicken into thin strips. (You can remove the skin, if you like, but I enjoy the added texture and flavor that skin can bring.) Trim the ends off of the cucumbers and split them lengthwise before cutting them in half across the middle; cut each piece into thin strips as shown on the right. Cover the chicken and cukes and chill them until it's time to serve this dish.

3. Finely grate the ginger and chop the green onion leaves into small pieces. Melt the sesame paste and sesame oil together in a small skillet, using a silicone spatula to scrape the bottom. Add the vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and mustard, and then mix them together and take a taste, adjusting with more of anything so that it tastes really good. Stir in the ginger and onions, and then loosen up the dressing with the water; you should end up with a sauce that has the consistency of heavy cream. Let it cool down by pouring it into a wide bowl. (You can make the recipe ahead of time up to this point and chill everything.)

Silky sheets in the kitchen
4. Drain the mung bean sheets and pour cold water over them, but do this carefully; they will have turned completely clear at this point and are rather fragile. You probably won't have to cut them since they tend to fall apart into bite-sized pieces all by themselves. Gently toss them with the bit of sesame oil to keep them from sticking together.

5. Just before serving, layer the mung bean sheets on your serving platter, then the cucumbers and chicken, and pour half of the dressing over the top. Garnish with the sesame seeds and cilantro, and have the extra dressing on the side for anyone who cares for more.

Monday, June 22, 2015

How to successfully endure a chilly SF night

The Chinese name for this Zhejiang dish is Pork Belly with Dried Squid and Eggs. 

I know, the main ingredients don’t make this sound especially enticing. But believe me, this is the sort of thing that gives you a reason to celebrate a cold, foggy evening with its rich flavors, complex textures, and utterly homey vibe. The Chinese word for umami is xiān , which is a fish next to a goat. In other words, it’s the combination of two very nuanced flavors that amplify and complement each other.

Gorgeous pork belly
Pork belly really doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation here. It’s simply fresh bacon that’s been given a bow tie and spats. As it simmers away in a braising sauce perfumed with way too much Shaoxing rice wine, some warm spices, good soy sauce, and a touch of sugar, this is bacon that has died and gone to heaven.

The dried squid is there to supply a sensuous textural contrast to the pork, its gentile tensile nature sidling up perfectly against the custardy meat, but you can use fresh squid if you can't find the dried ones; just prep them and toss them in at the end so that the squid barely has time to curl up a bit, as this will keep them tender. You'll notice that this recipe does not ask you to cut the squid into blossoms, like we did for this recipe. That is because the dried squid can be cooked until it's tender here, and so it really doesn't need to be fiddled with. If you opt for fresh squid here, cutting them into blossoms would be a fine touch. 
Soaked cuttlefish ready to go

By the time you serve this dish, the fat layers in the pork have surrendered any semblance of greasiness and have turned into savory strata that remind me of the silkiest butter as they slide across your tongue. The eggs will have absorbed all of those rich flavors and turn into pure xianwei bombs. And the squid has lent its suggestion of the sea to everything while maintaining a good bit of structure. This is seduction food, pure and simple.

Pork Belly with Dried Squid and Eggs
Mòyú dàkào jiā dàn  
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multi-course meal  

3 (8-inch long) dried squid, or thereabouts
Tap and boiling water, as needed
8 large eggs
1½ pounds (more or less) pork belly with the skin on
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
5 green onions
2 inches fresh ginger
1 or 2 large shallots, optional
1 cup Shaoxing rice wine
2 whole star anise
Half a stick of cinnamon, optional
¼ cup regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon (or so) rock sugar

1. Start this recipe about 4 days before you plan to serve it. First soak the squid in cool tap water for about an hour. Rinse the squid, place it in a resealable plastic bag, cover it with fresh cool water, and refrigerate the squid for 3 days, changing the water once a day, if you remember. Drain the squid in a colander set in the sink and then remove the clear cuttlebone in each squid. Slice off the triangular tip and then cut the bodies into squares around 1 to 2 inches wide. Cut the tentacles into lengths around 2 inches long.
Remove the glassine cuttlebone

2. Boil the eggs for about 8 minutes, drain, cover with cool water, and then tap the shells all over. Peel the eggs when they are cool and then refrigerate.

3. The day before you plan to serve this, remove any hairs on the pork belly and freeze it for an hour or so to firm up the fat and make it easier to handle. Cut the pork down through the skin into large batons around ¾ inch wide and thick; they will be around 2 inches long and should have a piece of skin at the end of each piece.

4. Place the pork in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring the water to a full boil over high heat and then simmer the meat for around 10 minutes. Rinse the scum off of the pork and pan. Drain the pork well. Place the cuttlefish in the pan, cover with water, and bring this to a boil. Simmer the cuttlefish for about a minute, and then rinse and drain it well.

5. Cut the green onions into 2-inch lengths, smash the ginger with the side of your cleaver, and slice the optional shallots into ¼ pieces. Set a medium to large sandpot (or a wok) on the stove. Pour in the oil, heat the pot over medium heat, and then add the drained pork, green onions, ginger, and shallots. Toss these in the hot oil until they are lightly browned, adjusting the heat as necessary. Pour in the rice wine, bring the pot to a full boil, and then add boiling water to cover. Toss in the star anise and cinnamon, cover the pot, and lower the heat to achieve a gentle simmer. Cook the pot covered for around 45 minutes.
Shaoxing wine: the secret ingredient

6. Add the squid and eggs to the pot, as well as both kinds of soy sauce and the sugar. Cover the pork with more boiling water as needed and bring the pot to a full boil. Lower the heat to return to a gentle simmer and cook the dish uncovered for about an hour. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Continue to simmer the ingredients if the pork and squid are not yet completely tender, but they should be done by now. When they are as you like them, quickly reduce the sauce to a thick syrup by boiling the pot over high heat, shaking often to keep the pork from sticking, but not stirring so that you don't break apart the meat batons. Remove the pot from the heat, let it come to room temperature, cover the pot, and refrigerate overnight.

7. Just before serving, scrape off the congealed fat and use it for stir-frying, if you like, as it is delicious. Slowly heat the pot over low heat until the sauce has melted, and the raise the heat to medium. Heat through the pork, then remove it from the heat and serve very hot with lots of rice or steamed bread.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Dim Sum Field Guide!

Good news to all of you out there who liked “The Beginner’s Field Guide to Dim Sum” and reprint I did for the Lucky Peach Chinatown issue: Ten Speed Press is going to publish an expanded version in August 2016 that should help you to satisfy all your cravings for this delicious way with brunch. Called THE DIM SUM FIELD GUIDE: A TAXONOMY OF DUMPLINGS, BUNS, MEATS, SWEETS, AND OTHER SPECIALTIES OF THE CHINESE TEAHOUSE, this fully illustrated handbook will include 80 entries on the many delights to be found in a dim sum restaurant and make you an expert on what to order, how to eat it, and everything in between.

My idea of brunch
Separated into the two main branches -- savory and sweet -- this guide will cover everything from steamed like Jiaozi and Siu Mai, to deep-fried dim sum such as Honeycomb Taro-Wrapped Pork and Coffee Pork Ribs, and all the many roast and braised meats you can expect to find wheeled past you in the dining room, like Char Siu, Roast Duck, Black Bean Chicken Feet, and Stuffed Bean Curd. 

Those who have a highly refined sweet tooth will not feel left out, either, for this guide will introduce you to such traditional wonders as Raised Fermented Rice Cakes and Fried Water Chestnut Pudding, as well as more familiar treats such as Custard Tarts, Fried Sesame Balls, and Malay Cake
Char Siu

Each entry will start out with the name in Chinese, as well as its pronunciation in Mandarin and Cantonese (with the correct tones, too!) so that you can learn to order fearlessly. The accompanying drawing will give you an idea of what to expect it to look like, but then the Guide will describe in detail how it was made, its regular ingredients, and how both the exterior and interior tastes and feels.

You will be shown what sauces to expect, what dips ought to be considered, and the related dim sum in that particular family. For example, steamed Char Siu Bun are tea house standards, but you should also consider the baked version in a puff pastry that crumbles satisfyingly with each bite. 

Siu Mai
The origins of each dim sum are also introduced to give you a sense of how this particular morsel developed. Many items trundled around on a cart, for example, originated in the seaport called Chaozhou in northeastern Guangdong, while others found their way from Yangtze River kitchens or Muslim diners in the cold north to the tropical teahouses of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Some even have interesting asides, such as the urban legend that Char Siu Buns are like hot dogs, in that they are repositories for any sort of mysterious ingredients, including even human flesh. (Again, that's a legend -- the contents of these are probably more appetizing that a hot dog could ever lay claim to.)

Order slip with "arrived" chops
You'll also receive advice on how to order from a cart and menu, the correct way to balance a dim sum meal, the various types of tea you should expect to choose from, and how to decipher the bill. There even is a short section planned on teahouse etiquette to get you looking like a seasoned pro in no time flat. 

Ten Speed Press, forthcoming in August 2016
176 pages, 80 illustrations
ISBN: 978-60774-956-1

Monday, June 8, 2015

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:

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.
All you need is love... & this

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.