Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How to not be bamboozled by bamboo

I think that if I get a choice as to what I might be in my next life, the panda sounds pretty good. 

First, I'd be protected and a national treasure. 

Second, I'd probably be hanging around in the forests of Sichuan, which are awfully pretty. 

Third, I'd be as cute as a button, no matter how huge or hairy I got. 

Fourth, if I got sent to a zoo, I'd get waited on hand and food while I lazed around and ignored the cameras. 

And fifth and most importantly, I finally could eat all the bamboo shoots I wanted.

Bamboo shoots puzzled me for the longest time because I couldn't figure out why anyone would want to eat them. About the same time that I traded in my tricycle for a bike, my taste buds rebelled against canned bamboo shoots. I felt that they, as well as their blechy chop suey cohorts - canned mushrooms and water chestnuts - tasted like the worst tinned food ever, in my humble and decidedly picky opinion.
China's answer to the artichoke

How things have changed. Fresh imported water chestnuts are readily available, mushrooms of every variety are not only fresh but no longer exotic, and now newly-harvested bamboo shoots from China and Taiwan tumble out of bins at my favorite Chinese markets. And while the thinner, more tender varieties are still available only in frozen form, and they are certainly better than nothing and light years more delicious than canned ones.

I hesitate to call bamboo shoots "vegetables" because they seem to resemble nothing less than grass shoots on steroids. If anything, they have the sweetness and nuttiness of artichoke hearts, but the texture is crispy rather than soft, although their texture can be mellowed with stewing and braising. As a result, bamboo shoots can provide a lovely crunch or comforting meatiness, can be the star or play a supporting part, and are perfect hot, cold, or at room temperature. Really, pandas are on to something here.

The only problem with bamboo shoots is that unless you know a few secrets about how to select good ones, they can often end up being bitter or dessicated. So, let's first take a quick look at frozen ones before moving on to the fresh. 

Simply put, you're buying a pig in a poke with frozen bamboo shoots. There's no way of knowing whether they will be sweet or bitter because they are already peeled, and that's where all the clues are to be found. So, try a couple of different brands and see which ones you like. I've had good luck with L&W brand, but that doesn't mean that the others aren't equally as good. Look inside the clear part of the packaging to see whether the shoots have dried out (meaning that there's freezer burn going on) or are filled with ice (meaning that they've been hanging around in the freezer too long). 

You'll also often have a choice between "winter bamboo" (dongsun) and "spring bamboo" (chunsun). Winter bamboo is squat and fat, while spring bamboo is long and thin. Winter bamboo is crispier and holds up well in soups and braises, while the tender spring bamboo can be blanched and served as a delicate vegetable in appetizers, soups, and entrees. I haven't seen fresh spring bamboo in the markets  around here yet, but who knows what the future will bring?

The key to selecting fresh winter bamboo lies in its color and shape. Before I reveal these secrets, though, let me tell you a story about how I gained great face in the farmer's market near my home in Taipei's suburbs...

The tip is golden except for just a slight tinge
Early one morning, I was shopping as usual before taking the bus to work. A farmer and his wife had a big tarp on the ground covered with freshly harvested bamboo shoots, and I asked the wife to pick me out some sweet ones. She just grabbed a couple fistfuls and stuffed them into a plastic bag. 

Now, a couple of years earlier, I had been schooled in the selection of good veggies by another greengrocer, Mr. Cong. This kind gentleman - whom I nicknamed The Pope, because he always gave me what looked like a papal blessing when he said goodbye - for some reason found this dumb little American who's talking to you here really amusing, so he would give me a chance to pick out my vegetables before critiquing my choices. 

Over a year or two of steady patronage, I learned this wonderful greengrocer's secrets to selecting perfect vegetables. That is why, when I told the farmer's wife that the bamboo shoots she had selected were bitter, I said a silent prayer of thanks to Mr. Cong just about two seconds after her husband sneered and said, "Well then, missy, if you can pick out the sweet ones, I'll give them to you for free!"

A relatively fresh harvest
Pawing through the shoots, I selected only the ones with golden tips, brushing aside the majority which were solidly green at the end. Mr. Cong had advised me that once a shoot sees the sun, it starts to change from shoot into stalk, from sugar to something else, from edible to inedible. 

So, as I filled up my bag with only the best of his harvest, the farmer's face fell and he looked close to tears. "You win," he sighed, and true to his word handed over my winnings. I gave him a fair price for them, though, as I knew how hard he and his wife had worked to grow and harvest these shoots, and from then on I had a couple of very friendly faces waiting for me whenever I shopped for groceries.

Oh yes, a couple of other things to look for in a good shoot: for some reason, curved shoots tend to be a bit sweeter than straight ones. The base of the shoot should be as white as possible; black or soft areas mean trouble. The bamboo shoot should feel firm all over, and the outer sheaths should be plump and brightly colored without any mold. 

Remove the sheaths
Store shoots in a plastic bag in the refrigerator without washing them and preferably with a paper towel to absorb any mold-causing moisture. Use the bamboo shoots as quickly as you can. 

To prepare them, first have a very sharp cleaver at the ready, and keep your cutting board steady by laying it on top of a damp washcloth. Rinse the shoot and pat it dry. Trim off the cut end until it is completely white. Next, cut a slit down the length of the shoot to loosen up the sheaths. Peel off the sheaths and trim off the tip. Next, use the cleaver or a sharp paring knife to trim any hard or discolored bits off of the bamboo shoot. It is easiest to cut into pieces if you halve it first.

Fresh bamboo can be parboiled in lightly salted water if you want to use cook it in stir-fries or steamed dishes. This is a good way to check to make sure that the shoot is a sweet as  you hoped. If for some reason it's bitter, rinse off the shoots, change the water, and parboil the shoots again; this often will take care of most of the bitterness.

A trimmed shoot
One of my favorite ways to enjoy both fresh and frozen winter bamboo is as a simple salad. The ingredients are so simple that this is more of an assembly than a recipe. This dish is particularly popular throughout Taiwan, and it most likely is something that they picked up from Japanese cuisine. 

And while you're buying your bamboo shoots, be sure and snag a plastic bottle of Kewpie mayo, which tends to be in the refrigerated section of Asian markets. 

Yup, that's Kewpie, as in the old arcade doll, a picture of which graces the label (see the bottom of this post). Sure, you can go ahead and use any other mayonnaise you like, but Kewpie is what the locals use, and it's pretty darned good. It also comes in a squeeze bottle, making it lots of fun to dribble all over your food. No matter what mayo you use, this salad is a quick and refreshing way to enjoy the grass that thinks it's a vegetable.

Cold bamboo shoot salad 
Liangban dongsun 涼拌冬筍
Taiwan, Japan
The mayo with the doll
Serves 4 as an appetizer

4 fist-sized winter bamboo shoots, fresh or frozen
Salted boiling water as needed
Kewpie brand mayonnaise (see the previous paragraph)
1. If you're using fresh shoots, peel them as described above and cut them in half; if you're using frozen ones, defrost them and slice any large ones in half. Place the shoots in a small saucepan and cover them with salted boiling water. Bring the water to a boil again and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the shoots until a paring knife can be easily inserted into the thickest part of the shoots, but don't overcook them; cooking time will vary, depending upon whether they're fresh or frozen shoots and how big the pieces are.

2. Drain the bamboo shoots, let them come to room temperature, and cut into bite-sized chunks. Place them in a covered container and chill the shoots until it's time to serve them. Place the shoots on a colorful plate (both the shoots and the mayo are white, so use something garish, if you like) and squeeze squiggles of mayo all over them.

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