Friday, February 4, 2011

The ambrosial pickled garlic and vinegar of Shanxi

One of the highlights for me whenever we’ve sat down for a northern Chinese hotpot dinner has always been the tawny brown heads of sweet pickled garlic that were plunked down with the plates of pickled cabbage and boiled peanuts. Fixed this way, the garlic evolves from bitingly hot to mellow and sweet, with the vinegar and salt providing cleansing edges.  I like my garlic exotically dark, so I use very dark brown sugar and a tasty but cheap balsamic vinegar, which also lends a lovely tang to the little cloves.

But the real prize in this recipe is the vinegar that emerges from this process! Nothing, but nothing can equal this vinegar. It has everything you could ask for in a sauce: sweet, sour, salty, garlic, and all of them in perfect balance. This one ingredient I prize so much that I never give it away, hoarding it like a miser and serving it dribbled over tidbits only when I'm certain that it will be appreciated. Selfish? Oh yes indeed. But completely sensible. Wait until you taste it; you'll understand.

Pickled garlic with braised beef shank
Like so many of China's greatest culinary masterpieces, this is understated, simple, and requires only a modicum of ingredients and preparation. But also like quite a few of my favorite dishes, this does require patience. These lovely heads of garlic have to settle quietly into the sweetened and gently salted vinegar for a couple of months - or even longer if you can bear it - before they surrender their fire and become mellow enough to eat just the way they are. Then and only then do you pluck out a sweetly drowned head of garlic, surreptitiously licking your fingers, and squeeze a lovely clove out of its jacket and into your mouth. 

If you find this as intoxicating as I do, consider preparing a batch every three months or so and have jars continually mellowing away in the pantry or on the shelf. I label my crocks and so put them into regular rotation.  As summer draws near, you still will find plenty of use for them, since the luscious sauce is great in salads and drizzled over things like fresh, flavorful tomatoes. I'm getting hunger pangs just thinking about a still warm Brandywine tomato, sliced into wedges, lightly salted, and oozing with this loveliest of vinegar sauces.

When I had that luncheon for Diana Kennedy back in October, I served a mound of the naked cloves next to thin slices of braised beef shank Beijing Muslim style. And since these were people with experienced palates, I put on the dog, serving them wedges of preserved eggs nestled in Belgian endive leaves, showered with shards of baby ginger, and then bathed in some of that sweet vinegar. What a combination!

Trust me, even the garlic peels are tasty
A note on the ingredients: I tend to use a good, cheap balsamic vinegar here for a couple of reasons. First, I haven't been too happy with the taste of lots of the Chinese vinegars I have tried; they seem raw and yeasty. However, there has been a bit of concern lately over the amount of lead that has found its way into balsamic vinegars, so do your research. Also, a report has noted that industrial acid has been used in 95 percent of Shanxi's famed "aged" vinegars.

As for the sugar, my hands-down favorite is the extremely dark brown sugar that you can buy in some Korean markets. This sugar is soft and moist and tastes like molasses, and it works wonders here.  Finally, I have read that Chinese garlic is unclean, full of pesticides, and often sold at such outrageously low prices that American farmers can't compete. So, if you worry about things like I do, buy heavy, firm, plump heads of garlic that are organically grown, and you'll find that the flavor just cannot be beat. I take this one step further and plant the biggest cloves so that I have nice green shoots to cook with in the cooler months, as well as more heavy, firm, plump, organic heads to harvest later on.  

Win win.

Sweet pickled garlic cloves 
Tang suan  糖蒜 
Makes 8 heads of pickled garlic
Use American organic garlic if possible

Special equipment:  
1-quart jar or crock
A plate that fits easily inside the mouth of the jar or crock

Garlic and brining liquid:
8 large heads of fresh garlic
½ cup sea salt
6 cups hot water
3 cups balsamic vinegar
2¼ cups dark brown sugar
1 cup filtered water
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1. Clean the heads of garlic, but don’t break them apart.  Peel off most of the outer layers of the garlic skin, leaving only a layer or two over the garlic cloves.  Carefully scrub the root end and cut off as much as possible without cutting into the cloves or breaking the heads.

2. Dissolve the salt in the hot water and let it cool.  Place the garlic in the cool salt water and let them soak for about 24 hours to remove some of the harshness and to make the garlic as clean as possible.

Dark dreams
3. Place the vinegar, sugar, water, and soy sauce in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, and then stir it until the sugar dissolves.  Allow the marinade to cool down to room temperature.

4. Remove the garlic from the salt water and place them in the clean jar or crock without rinsing the salt water off.  Pour the cool marinade over them, place the plate on top of the garlic to help submerge them in the marinade, and cover the container.  Lightly stir the garlic every day or two for a week and then store the garlic in a cool place for about 2 weeks before using.  Taste a clove of garlic to see whether its flavor is sweet and relatively gentle.  As soon as the garlic is pickled to your liking, pack the garlic in small jars or plastic containers and store them in the refrigerator; they will keep a long time that way.