Friday, August 26, 2011

Anhui's toon leaves tossed with fresh bean curd

This has to be one of the strangest names for a tree: Chinese toon. I know, it sounds like it's straight out of Who Killed Roger Rabbit? 

But that's the English name that somehow has been assigned to Toona sinensis (aka Cedrela sinensis), what the Chinese lovingly refer to as xiangchun

However, some marketing folks must have been clued in lately, as I've recently seen this tree come to be called "Chinese cedar." Goodness knows why... it has nothing to do with cedars. But then again, it has nothing to do with Toon Town, either.

So what is it? Well, it looks an awful lot like a sumac tree. But unlike that local weed, this is a clumping plant that is beloved in the eastern areas of China, particularly in Anhui, where it shows up in a number of delicious incarnations.

Slightly oniony in flavor, the tender reddish leaves of the toon are used fresh as in this tasty cool dish, where their unusual flavor is cossetted by pillowy cubes of fresh bean curd and a thin blanket of a sesame sauce. As understated as a society matron, this is a simple and refined way to get to know this singular taste.

These plants are sometimes available in the back yards of ethnic Eastern Chinese, so ask around. You can also find the trees online if you want to grow them yourselves. I have a small tree grown from a sucker that my friends gave me a couple years ago, and although I've heard that this plant is invasive, in my hard adobe it's been nothing but well behaved. If you have lush, water-retentive soil, though, you might consider growing it in a pot.

Salted and fresh toon leaves
Otherwise, you can buy toon frozen or salted, two options that are only know beginning to make their way into our local Chinese markets. Frozen toon is easy to deal with: just defrost what you want and blanch it only quickly, as it won't stand too much abuse at that point. 

Salted xiangchun, as shown on the right with a fresh leaf, needs to be rinsed and then soaked for about half an hour to get rid of most of the salt; then, proceed as directed, but use a light hand with the salt until you are sure how much salinity has been retained in the leaves.

This dish can be served any time of the year if you have the frozen or salted leaves, but fresh toon is best now in summer when the red shoots are growing strong but are still tender. Dry the older leaves for use in such things as the Hakka Style Tamales we made a few months ago. The flavor of the dried older leaves is inimitable, and it lends an authentic taste to the tamales, one that you can rarely find in any store.

Here, though, use only the tenderest leaves, the ones that are slightly red and that can be pierced easily with your fingernail without crumbling. The stems are also a good indicator of where the tenderest leaves are, since they too will be a mahogany color and will snap like a string bean, rather than like wood. Pick off all of the hard stems and rougher leaves so that you are left with soft shoots, as shown in that picture up there on the right. The amount suggested in this recipe is "a large handful," but feel free to use as much or as little as you like or have.

Fresh toon shoot and curd
Anhui's toon leaves tossed with fresh bean curd 
Xiangchun ban doufu  香椿拌豆腐 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of an array of appetizers, or 2 to 3 as a main appetizer

Bean curd and toon:
1 block fresh, firm bean curd, preferably organic
1 large handful fresh toon leaves (see note above), or use fresh or salted toon leaves as directed above
3 cups water
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons roasted sesame oil, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons roasted sesame paste, plus more to taste
1½ teaspoons light soy sauce, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
Boiling water, as needed
1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil
A good sprinkle of sea salt
Toasted sesame seeds, optional
1. Cut the bean curd into ¾ -inch cubes and drain off most of the liquid. Pick over the leaves as directed in the note above and remove any tough stems or leaves. Place two small colanders in your sink. 
Finely chopped blanched toon leaves

2. Bring the water to a boil over high heat in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the bean curd and blanch it for a minute, and then use a slotted spoon to remove the bean curd to a colander in the sink where it can drain. Toss the toon leaves into the boiling water and blanch them for about 30 seconds. Pour the pot into another colander placed in the sink and rinse them with cool tap water to immediately stop the cooking.

3. Pile the blanched bean curd on a serving plate. Squeeze the toon leaves dry and finely chop them. Refrigerate the bean curd and toon leaves for a few hours to chill them, if you like.

4. Mix together the sauce ingredients; if the sauce is too thick, thin it out with a few teaspoons of boiling water so that it has the consistency of cream.  Taste the toon leaves and the sauce, and adjust the seasoning accordingly. Drain any water off of the serving platter that has accumulated while the bean curd was resting. Pour the sauce over the bean curd and sprinkle the chopped toon leaves on top. Garnish the toon leaves with the sesame oil and salt, as well as a bit of toasted sesame seeds, if you like. Toss at the table. 

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