Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fresh water chestnuts and Anhui frosted fruit fritters

Growing up in Middle America in the fifties and sixties, canned water chestnuts were in my tiny mind nothing less than pure exotica. They would find their way into the chow yuk we'd pick up at the neighborhood Chinese joint, be wrapped in bacon and broiled for the parents' bridge night, and were even tossed into Thanksgiving stuffing whenever fits of creativity took hold in the kitchen. I liked the crunch and was always happy to see them in whatever incarnation made its way to my plate.

But that was all before I tried fresh water chestnuts. And now I can never go back. It's sort of like canned peaches. I used to eat lots of them, too. 

That ended the day I bit down into a white Babcock still hot from the branch, the juices melting down my arm as the incredible perfume filled my head. One taste converted me forever and made me willing to wait for peaches until those few precious weeks of midsummer when they are at their absolute best. Fresh peaches and canned peaches seem like two different foods, now, completely unrelated to each other. And it is the same with water chestnuts: fresh is the only way to go.

Why am I crazy about fresh water chestnuts? The taste and the texture. Fresh ones taste subtly sugary, like fresh apples or crispy pears without the fruit overtones.  They crunch and bounce around my mouth with exuberance whenever they are surrounded with softer items, like ground meat, and they offer textural counterpoints to stir-fries, bits of understated sweetness that stand up well to heavily flavored sauces or vibrant ingredients. Canned ones... well, they taste like the can and feel tired rather than crispy. I know you can rinse them off with hot water to remove some of that canned taste, but I still end up flicking them out of my bowl in disgust. It's like canned potatoes... unless you are in a bomb shelter and have run out of everything else, I don't see why you would bother even opening up the tin.

Hidden candy
If you live in an area with lots of Chinese people, locating fresh water chestnuts should not pose too much of a problem.  These little tubers are not nuts, but the way, but come from the roots of a freshwater plant. Because of this, are not supposed to be stored dry, but rather covered with fresh water. 

When you get them home, rinse them off and put them in a covered container, and then pour fresh tap water over the water chestnuts to cover. Rinse the unpeeled water chestnut every day or so before covering them again with water. They will stay fresh and perfect for many days this way. But, as with just about every other vegetable, you should probably get around to eating them sooner rather than later.

Chinese markets often sell them covered in plastic on Styrofoam trays, and the most you can do in that case is press on them through the plastic and peer at the little guys to see whether mold has already made inroads or rot has eaten away at the tubers before you. What you are looking for in a fresh water chestnut is firmness all over. Any soft spots hint of decay, and you will often end up trimming away almost everything before you can find an edible morsel. So, toss out any that have any mushiness. Mold can be okay if it is only just beginning to grow on the water chestnut; the best way to check is to wash it thoroughly and then pare off the black skin; if it is yellow underneath, toss it out.  You can see by now that when you buy water chestnuts, it is best to err on the side of buying too many rather than risk not having enough. But they are gorgeous and delicious, and even if you do end up with too many, you can store them as suggested above or peel and eat them just about any way imaginable.

Sprouts ready to grow
Before we get to a recipe that highlights water chestnuts and some of the other ingredients we have been looking at lately, let's talk about what a perfect water chestnut should look like and feel like, and then how to peel them. First, a good water chestnut should feel heavy for its size. It will be hard all over with no spongy spots. The best and freshest examples have taut, shiny skins that sometimes might be flecked with mud, which is quite all right because it washes off easily. And at the tips of each tuber there will be little sprouts - usually a triad of half-inch long white needles - that the water chestnut is planning to send out into the pond water as soon as the weather warms up. The bottoms of the tubers will be dimpled and firm.

Before you peel the water chestnuts, have a work bowl set up next to your sink filled about halfway with cool tap water; the peeled tubers will be able to take a bath in there while you trim up the rest, and it will also help keep them from oxidizing. Hold a water chestnut with the fingers of one hand and use a potato peeler to trim away all of the smooth areas and then turn to a very sharp paring knife to strip off the sprouts, root end, and any dark or yellow areas. Plop the peeled water chestnut in the water, rinse it off, and either use it right away or refrigerate it covered with water.

Au naturel and peeled
Water chestnuts are almost always either sliced (you will generally get about a dozen slices from each chestnut) or cut into matchsticks or chopped or lightly smashed. They have the texture of a firm apple or potato, so this is not hard at all to do. 

Master the simple art of selecting, storing, and preparing water chestnuts, and you will have good reasons to enjoy these wonderful little guys at the drop of a hat. One such instance might be afternoon tea for some good friends, when a plate of the following tasty morsels from Anhui would be pounced on with delight. You can make these fritters ahead of time, since they need to served cool in order for the "frost" to form on the surface. The fritters themselves are little more than fruit, nuts, and sticky rice bound with egg, and the sweetness shows up as a thin but crunchy sugar envelope.

Finishing off a dish with a delicate sugar coating seems to be unique to Anhui, and its most famous example is most likely the delightful pork rib recipe called guashuang paigu, or "pork ribs dusted with frost." This appetizer is usually served before a lush Anhui-style banquet, the ribs served cool so that the frost can get crunchy and glitter opaquely on the meat. Perhaps we can take a look at that one soon, too. Anhui also has other dishes that refer to snow and frost, most likely because of the massive peaks that adorn its lower borders. Many of these dishes, though, refer to beaten egg whites, such as "searching for fish in the snow" (xue zhong zhao yu) or "white snow chicken" (baixue ji)... yet more delightful Anhui delicacies that deserve our attention!

Snowflake fruit fritters
Xuéhuā shuĭguŏ yuánzi 雪花水果圓子 
Makes about 30 pieces

1 cup cooked short-grain sticky (a/k/a sweet or glutinous rice; see note below)
½ cup Chinese wolfberries (also known as gouqi, or goji berries), or raisins
½ cup walnut pieces
Boiling water
5 fresh, peeled water chestnuts (about ½ cup), finely chopped, or ½ cup finely chopped jicama
½ of a large, firm, peeled apple, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon chopped candied kumquats (see note below)
1 large egg, beaten
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups fresh vegetable or peanut oil (don't reuse frying oil here, as it will detract from the delicate flavors)
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup filtered water
Frosted fruit fritters

1. Cook the rice, if you haven't done so already; this will take about 40 minutes if you are using a rice cooker, and there is no need to soak the rice first when you use a rice cooker. Cover the raisins and walnuts with boiling water to plump them up. Place the chopped water chestnuts and apples in a medium work bowl along with a half teaspoon of salt, and then let them soak in the salted water for about 5 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Drain the water chestnuts and apples thoroughly and place them in a medium work bowl. Drain and rinse the raisins and walnuts, chop them coarsely, and add them to the bowl along with the steamed rice and candied kumquats. Mix in the beaten egg and cornstarch with your fingers so that you can break up any lumps, and then roll the lumpy paste into about 30 elongated balls the shape of dates. 

3. Place a tray with a couple of paper towels next to the stove. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat until a wooden or bamboo chopstick immediately bubbles all over when it is inserted into the oil. The balls will be begging to fall apart, so use the tip of your cleaver to pick up the balls one at a time and lower them gently into the hot oil; this way you can place the balls right in the oil without either burning yourself or disintegrating the fritters. Fry around 5 at a time, and let them brown on one side before carefully turning them over. Drain the fritters on the paper towels while you fry the rest.
Cleaver as spatula

4. Drain the oil from the wok and rinse it out. Lightly oil a large platter and place it next to the stove. Add the sugar and water to the wok and heat rapidly it over high heat. Just as it is about to change color from white to golden (you will see the edge of the sugar water take on a golden tinge), toss in the fritters, flip them quickly but very gently  in the sugar so that they become completely covered in the syrup, and then scoop them out onto the waiting plate. Separate the fritters so that they don't stick to each other, and chill them until a "frost" has formed over the fritters. Serve cold or slightly cool.

Note on the rice: Cook at least 1½ cups of raw sticky rice while you're at it, as it is difficult to prepare smaller amounts in a rice cooker; preparing the rice in a rice cooker doesn't require the rice to be soaked first. If you are using a stacked steamer, soak the rice in cool water for at least 4 hours and then steam it so that you don't end up with dry areas in the rice kernels. Measure out the cooked rice you need for this recipe and have the rest for dinner, make rice crusts, or freeze in a Ziploc bag for later.

Note on the candied kumquats: If you don't have candied kumquats handy, use either candied orange peel or some marmalade with the jam rinsed off.

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