Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Beijing's spinach and peanut appetizer

Weather as hot as it's been lately demands cool and refreshing meals, because if you're anything like me, your appetite lags in direct proportion to the rise in mercury.  

One way to make food more appealing is to offer a spread of what the Chinese call "stomach openers," or kaiweicai, the very definition of appetizers.  Most of what I offer here are vegetarian - that's because to my mind few things are as refreshing on a sweltering day as cold salads and chilled veggies.  In the next column we'll take a look at what is probably the most scrumptious way to cook an egg, but for the nonce, as they say, it's nothing but vegetables around here.

A couple of readers recently asked that I provide a recipe for a popular Beijing style dish that is an easy toss of blanched spinach and fried peanuts, and I am delighted to oblige, as this is a great "stomach opener."  As with all things Chinese, though, the secret is in the balance, in the timing, and in the brilliant contrasts between flavors and textures.

Crispy fried peanuts
If you've been cooking along with this blog, Spinach and Peanut Appetizer will prove to be particularly foolproof since it relies on the delicious fried peanuts I showed you how to make a few months ago.  Plus, you'll want to spike this dish with either the dressing that's given below or, if you are really industrious, you'll be able to lace it with some of that glorious garlic-infused sweet vinegar that is the ambrosial by-product of the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves of Shanxi.  In fact, this makes perfect sense, because Shanxi is up there in the northern reaches of China, not too far at all from Beijing, and so if it seems that these dishes come together as if they were closely related, that's because they are.

The only thing I ask you to take particular care with - aside from frying the peanuts, of course - is the washing of the spinach.  Nothing destroys a spinach dish faster than grit, and spinach seems to hold onto sand with impressive tenacity.  The best way to wash spinach is to use the trick I learned eons ago from Marian Morash's Victory Garden Cookbook:  wash the spinach in a tub of warm water, which is easier on your hands and so makes swishing around the leaves a whole lot more pleasant. Rinse and swish the spinach, changing the water each time until there is absolutely no sand left in the bottom of the bowl.  Then, shake the leaves dry; you don't need to get them totally dry for this dish, as they are going to be blanched.

Soak the spinach in warm water
Chinese dishes rarely call for spinach to be stemmed.  If you have a tough bunch of spinach, though, this is a great time to learn how to remove the stems a la Julia Child:  just grab the leaves with one hand while pulling up on the stems like a zipper with the other... totally easy and a skill that will come in handy more times than you'll think possible.  No need to throw out the stems, though; toss them into your stockpot or rinse them well, chop them finely, blanch or stir-fry, and season as desired.  (Sorry, but my thrifty Scot nature has a nervous breakdown at the first sign of waste.)

Enjoy this dish either chilled or slightly warm.  If you are making it ahead of time, wait until the last minute to toss in the dressing and peanuts so that the spinach remains a lovely emerald green and the peanuts stay crunchy.

Beijing-style spinach and peanut appetizer 
Bocai huasheng   菠菜花生  
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer, 2 to 3 as a side dish

1 bunch (about 12 ounces) fresh spinach, as tender as possible
¼ cup Fried Peanuts
2 to 3 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
3 or more tablespoons sauce from the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves (or
1 clove garlic, finely minced, plus 
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce, plus 1 tablespoon tasty dark vinegar, plus 1 teaspoon sugar)
Sea salt to taste

The garlicky dressing
1. Clean the spinach as directed above, removing any tough stems.  Blanch the spinach by bringing about 2 inches of filtered water to a boil in a large (2 quart) covered saucepan before adding the spinach, covering the pot again, and then quickly tossing the spinach with a pair of tongs as soon as the water boils again. Once all of the leaves have wilted, but are still bright green and barely cooked, drain the spinach in a colander set in the sink.  Spray cold water over the spinach to stop the cooking and preserve the color.  Lightly squeeze the spinach dry and chill it if you are not serving it immediately.

2. If you haven't fried the peanuts yet, do so now, as they will need to cool down before they become crispy.

3. To make the dressing, combine the sesame oil with either the sauce from the Sweet Pickled Garlic Cloves or the rest of the ingredients.  Taste and adjust the seasoning.  

4. Just before serving, toss the spinach with the sauce and the Fried Peanuts.  Serve cold.