Saturday, September 10, 2011

A full moon custard for the Moon Festival

My first year in Taiwan, I was more than a bit confused by the Moon Festival. Called the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhongqiujie) in Chinese, this lands in the exact middle of fall according to the lunar calendar, a date that according to our Western calendar just barely makes it into the beginning of autumn. 

So, first of all, the end of September or early October didn't seem like the middle of anything. And the celebrations were so foreign to my tastes... just wandering around in the evening, enjoying the full moon with a stuffed pastry. Okay, I did understand the pastry part (who wouldn't?), but looking at the moon was just weird to me back then. I had rarely even noticed the moon before Taiwan, except of course when it did something particularly remarkable, like disappear in an eclipse.

But that is one of the things I love about Chinese culture: the appreciation of everyday miracles. Like the moon. 

Eggs, beautiful eggs
Now she's part of my life in so many ways, and I always know exactly what phase she's in. (And yes, the moon is most definitely a girl. I'll get to that later.) I like to look for her whenever I get up at night, checking to see how she's doing and enjoying her most when she's round and full and bathing the hills with a white light

The Chinese believe that you can see the face of Chang'e there, who secretly tasted her husband's elixir of immortality and then fled his wrath by escaping to the moon. Others see an osmanthus (sweet olive) tree when the dark areas are at the top of the moon. And of course there's the rabbit pounding out more of that elixir in a mortar, which is why rabbits are part of the Moon Festival celebrations, too, and you'll see them scampering over wrapping paper, boxes of the Chinese filled pastries known as moon cakes, and prancing on depictions of the moon.

There's not a whole lot of other foods traditionally associated with the Moon Festival, but I'd like to change that. This one in particular should be a big hit: the poetic Clouds Covering the Mid-Autumn Moon. Based on a recipe from one of my absolute favorite Cantonese food writers, Jiang Xianzhu, this is a deliciously simple way with eggs that even kids will love. You can make this as simple or as fancy as you like, tailoring it to fit your menu and your guests.

Ms. Jiang recommends topping this with just light soy sauce, some warmed-up oil, and a sprinkling of both thinly sliced green onions and some cilantro. And the eggs are quite good that way. But I like to tinker with the classics, and have found that this is the perfect canvas for a wide variety of embellishments.

One of the best uses either chopped flower mushrooms or tiny dried shrimp. You can, of course, use diced poultry or meat, fresh shrimp, or whatever else strikes your fancy. But little in life brings such consistent pleasure to my palate as those flower mushrooms, and I never seem to get enough funk on my plate, so those teeny shrimp are a close second place.

This coming Monday is the Moon Festival. So, steam a bowl of these gloriously silky eggs for a late dinner, take it by a window or sit out on the porch, and spoon in these luxurious eggs while smiling back at Chang'e.

Clouds covering the mid-autumn moon 
Yun gai Zhongqiu yue 雲蓋中秋月 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, 2 to 3 as a main dish

The luscious silky texture
4 large, really fresh, organic, free-range eggs
2 cups cool filtered water
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 soaked flower mushrooms or 3 tablespoons tiny dried shrimp
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 green onion, trimmed and thinly sliced
1. Place a trivet in a wide pot and fill the pot with just enough water that it is about an eighth of an inch below the top of the trivet; this will keep the eggs silky by not overheating the bottom of the dish. 

Steam the dish with a covering
2. Beat the eggs lightly and add both the water and salt. Beat them a bit more and then pour the liquid through a strainer into a shallow heatproof 4-cup dish with a rim. Cover the dish with foil and place it the trivet. (This foil will keep the water and steam out of the eggs, as this will also help with the texture.) Cover the pot and bring it to a boil, and then immediately lower the heat so that it barely simmers. Steam the eggs for about 10 to 12 minutes. Check to see whether the eggs are done by lifting up the edge of the foil; gently shake the dish to make sure that the center is solid. However, don't overcook the eggs, as they will get bubbly and spongy around the edges

3. While the eggs are steaming, prepare the sauce. If you are using the mushrooms, trim off the stems and cut the caps into a fine dice. If you are using the shrimp, place them in a strainer and rinse them with cold water to remove most of the salt, then wrap them in a paper towel to sop off the moisture.

4. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat and add either the mushrooms or shrimp. Adjust the heat as needed, stir-frying them gently so that they barely brown and crisp up. Add the oyster sauce and rice wine, stir a few times, and taste, adjusting the seasoning as needed. Pour the sauce over the steamed eggs and sprinkle with the onions. Serve immediately, allowing your guests to spoon the eggs onto their rice.