Thursday, November 17, 2011

The mushroom that tastes like abalone

The abalone has different names in Chinese - baoyu or jiukong - but it rarely is served fresh anymore. California used to have the most amazing abalone imaginable: enormous and flavorful. But that is a thing of the past for most of us.

The reason for this is that, as with much of the rest of the world, California's large abalone have been pretty much fished out of existence over the years, demand far outstripping both supply and the poor creatures' ability to procreate. 

Nowadays most Chinese restaurants have to settle for the very small farmed ones from Japan. These are quite expensive, their tenderness and ability to refer to themselves as abalone offset by high cost and a distinct lack of flavor, at least in my opinion. Small canned abalone from Mexico or dried and reconstituted abalone are featured in some lavish Cantonese banquets, the taste of the gastropod depending more upon the skill and training of the chef more than anything else.

To say that I am not a huge fan of either canned or dried abalone is an understatement. Growing up in California, I knew what fresh abalone steaks tasted like even before I set foot in Taiwan. Canned abalone tastes pretty much like a can, no matter how hard you try to change that, and dried ones taste no more like fresh abalone than dried shrimp taste like something you'd find in a seafood cocktail.

Slice them against the grain
So, for many years I contented myself with picking away at their surroundings whenever these versions rolled around, nibbling on the vegetables and looking forward to the next course.

But now I have a new love, one that has all the luscious texture of the big abalone steaks of my youth combined with a distinct perfume that smells perversely of the sea. I say that it is odd because it belongs to a mushroom. Much like the fungi that taste like geoducks, abalone mushrooms are a peculiar cross between the piscine and the vegetal worlds, and our taste buds are the happy beneficiaries of this strange gift.

To my mind, traditional Cantonese cuisine has a singular knack for preparing fresh abalone. Nothing is over-sauced or overcooked there. Rather, the delicate flavors are allowed to shine on their own with only a minimum of fussing about. 

This is easiest if they are flattened
In the following recipe, I've channeled the spirit of some Cantonese chefs to provide some abalone mushrooms with an admirable supporting cast: a delicate sauce, crispy bok choy, and a tender bed of fried bean curd. 

This is no ordinary bean curd, though. Rather, this is an increasingly popular ingredient in China that has yet to make much headway over here: egg bean curd, or yuzi doufu. In this case, the product is nothing other than a tender steamed custard. Only slightly eggy and a pale yellow, egg bean curd needs to be handled gently to preserve its shimmering texture and flavor. 

I have therefore given it a simple cornstarch coating in the following dish, one that fries up to a nutty brown on the outside while the interior remains pudding-like. With the slightly chewy "abalone" on top and the crispy vegetables providing textural counterpoint, all that is needed is the light, savory sauce to tie it together. (If you are a vegetarian, just use veggie oyster sauce.)

Easy and delectable, this is a worthy surrogate for real abalone, something that might allow our oceanic populations to recover while we diners do not feel a bit deprived. 

First slice of egg beancurd
Abalone mushrooms over fried custard 
Baoyugu hui yuzi doufu 鮑魚菇燴玉子豆腐 
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal

4 ounces or so abalone mushroom, about 1 large
Filtered water
Sea salt
8 ounces smallish bok choy
1 package (about 8 ounces) egg bean curd, or regular soft bean curd
Cornstarch for dredging
Fresh peanut or vegetable oil
5 thin slices fresh ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup oyster sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar
Reserved mushroom stock

1. Wipe the mushroom clean with a moist paper towel. Trim off any hard or brown spots. To slice it into thin pieces, press down on the mushroom with the stem end up so that the mushroom is more or less flattened. Use a sharp knife to cut horizontally across the mushroom until you are left with a stack of thin slices.

Silky egg beancurd slices
2. Place the slices in a saucepan and barely cover with water. Add about half a teaspoon of salt to the pan and bring the water to a boil. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook the mushroom slices until they are tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Strain out the mushrooms and reduce the mushroom stock to about ¼ cup. (You may prepare the mushroom slices ahead of time up to this point and keep them refrigerated in a covered container.)

3. Trim the ends off the bok choy and cut them into halves or quarters, depending upon the size. Rinse the bok choy in a colander and be sure to remove all of the grit that sometimes clings to the base of the leaves. Shake the bok choy very dry or use a salad spinner.

4. Cut the egg bean curd into rounds or squares about a half-inch thick. Coat them all over in the cornstarch and shake off any loose starch. Line a large plate with a paper towel and set it next to the stove, along with a serving platter. 

5. Heat about half an inch of oil in a flat skillet over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the bean curd piece-by-piece to the pan, taking care not to splatter the hot oil on yourself. Gently fry the bean curd, adjusting the heat as needed, and flip the pieces over as they turn a nutty brown. Once both sides are brown and the bean curd is puffy, remove the pieces to the paper towel so that they can drain.

6. Turn the heat up to high, add a pinch of salt, and flash fry the bok choy until it is a jade green and barely cooked. Remove the bok choy to your serving platter.

7. Pour about 1 tablespoon oil to the pan and heat it over high until the oil barely smokes. Add the ginger and green onions, and fry them quickly to season the oil. Toss in the cooked mushrooms, oyster sauce, rice wine, sugar, and reserved mushroom stock. Bring the sauce to a boil, stirring around the mushrooms so that they are completely heated through. Taste and adjust the seasoning. 

8. Drain off any liquid that has accumulated on your serving platter from the bok choy and scoot them around the edge of the platter to form a nest. Arrange the fried bean curd in a single layer inside the nest and pour the mushrooms and sauce over the bean curd. Serve hot.

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