Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sweet stuffed Asian pears

Holding an Asian pear in your hand, it's hard to imagine it in any other form than as Nature intended. Fresh from the tree, it is a perfect dessert: sweet, juicy, and possessing a wonderful perfume.

But this simple fruit has been transformed by some sublimely talented chefs in the northern province of Shandong into a truly remarkable treat: the hollowed out pears are stuffed with fruits, nuts, and sometimes even the lacy white jelly fungus called "snow ear" (xue'er). These are then seasoned with sugar and steamed until the flesh becomes meltingly soft.

A perfect dessert in its own right
China has so many wondrous sweets like this that it drives me more than a bit mad when some Westerners proclaim that China doesn't have desserts. Yes, it most certainly does. Do they serve them after every meal? No. Even before weight watching became fashionable in the West, the Chinese were already very sensible when it came to eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and sugar has (at least until recently, as processed foods wreak as much havoc on local cuisines here as they do anywhere else) never much of a big deal, except for the occasional treat.

Even today, unadorned fruit is considered a healthy and delicious ending for just about any dinner. But special occasions warrant special dispensations, and that is the time that chefs work their magic on fruits and nuts and sugar and flour.

Lemon zest adds, well, zest
I have refashioned this extremely easy traditional dessert into something that makes both Westerners and Chinese sigh with delight. Instead of straight sugar, I sweeten the sauce with caramel, honey,  and Asian jujube jam, a lovely preserve that is usually mixed into hot water as a beverage. The sweetness is given a contrasting edge with fresh lemon juice and thin strips of the yellow zest, which lightens the flavors and wakes up the palate.

Inside the pears is some of that lacy white jelly fungus. There really is no equivalent in the West. It doesn't have a taste of its own, but it is beloved in China for its slightly gelatinous texture, a mouth feel that gently slides over the tongue. It is there to set off the crunch of the northern and southern apricot kernels, the slight tartness of the goqi berries, the gentle sweetness of the jujubes (Chinese dates), and the aroma of the pear that acts as the most wonderful cup imaginable.
Lacy white "snow ear"

While I certainly enjoy the simple rock sugar syrup that is usually called for here, I have played around with it a bit and found that ginger warms up the flavors and adds just the right hint of spice. Boiling the sugar and honey down into a caramel deepens the flavors and provides a suggestion of bitterness that makes the sweetness sparkle. And when all of the ingredients have been sprinkled into the pears, I add a spoonful of Korean jujube jam, which is sweet and fruity and melds perfectly with its companions.

This dish can be made ahead of time and refrigerated. Then, all you have to do is steam the pears again until they are heated through. Nothing else is needed except for some good tea. It is a light, delicious, and welcome end to even the most complicated banquet, and the fact that few people have ever tasted it outside of China makes this even more of a delight.

Sweet stuffed Asian pears 
Babao liguan 八寶黎罐  
Ready for stuffing
Makes 8 servings

1 lemon
2 heads white jelly fungus (xue'er; see Tips)
2 cups filtered water
¼ cup rock sugar
2 tablespoons flavorful honey
½ teaspoon sea salt
3 slices ginger
8 crisp, yellow skinned Asian pears, preferably yali pears (see Tips)
4 pitted jujubes (Chinese dates)
3 tablespoons or more goqi berries
3 tablespoons or more northern apricot kernels (see Tips)
Stuffed for the steamer
3 tablespoons or more southern apricot kernels (see Tips)
8 tablespoons or more Korean jujube jam (see Tips)

1. Peel the lemon with a zester, or use a potato peeler to trim off only the yellow zest before slicing it into very thin julienne. Cut the lemon in half; squeeze one half into a bowl with about 4 cups of water, and reserve the other half.

2. Rinse the white fungus and place it in a heatproof bowl. Cover it with hot water for about 5 minutes to soften it, and then trim away the hard, yellowish base. Break apart the fungus into little petals. 

3. Bring the water to a boil and add the rock sugar, honey, salt, and plumped up white fungus to the water, as well as the zest and the juice from the reserved half lemon. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce begins to thicken. Strain out the white jelly fungus and zest into a heatproof bowl and discard the ginger. Rapidly boil down the syrup until it bubbles furiously, and then turn it into caramel by continuing to heat it to a golden brown -- watch it carefully, as it goes from syrup to caramel very quickly, and you don't want it to burn. Pour the caramel over the fungus.

Apricot kernels
4. Prepare one pear at a time by removing the skin with a potato peeler, cutting off the top 1 inch parallel with the base (so that the top is horizontal when you set the pear down on its bottom), and removing the core and some of the flesh with a melon baller (see Tips), but leaving the base (or flower end) solid so that you are left with a cup. Try to keep at least a ¼-inch wall of pear all around so that the flesh does not crack. Place the pear in the lemon water to keep it from turning brown. Repeat with the rest of the pears until they are all peeled and hollowed out, adding more water as necessary so that all the pears are submerged.

5. Drain the pear cups and place them right-side up on a rimmed heatproof plate that fits easily into your steamer. Divide the jujubes, goqi berries, and apricot kernels among the pears, pour in the caramelized white fungus and syrup, and top with the jam. The stuffing should almost come to the top of each pear; if not, add a bit more of the dried fruit, almond kernels, and jam. Place the plate in the steamer and steam the pears over medium heat for an hour, adding more water to the steamer as needed. Cool the pears to room temperature and then set them into small heatproof bowls. Drain the liquid in the plate into a saucepan and reduce it over high heat until thick; pour this into the pears.

6. About 15 minutes before serving, steam the pears again over medium heat until they are heated through. Serve them on small saucers in their individual cups with small spoons.


"Duck pear" 
Peeled Chinese apricot kernels come in two varieties: northern (beixing 北杏, which is considered bitter) and southern (nanxing 南杏, which is thought to be sweet). They are almost always combined, as this is thought to combat any ill effects, although they are highly prized in Chinese medicine as a tonic for the lungs. They have such a delicious almond flavor that they are what is used to scent Italian amaretti cookies and amaretto liqueur. If you cannot locate apricot kernels, use blanched slivered almonds.

White jelly fungus has a much prettier name in Chinese: xue'er 雪耳 or "snow ear." Just like their cousins, wood ear mushrooms, these grow on dead wood as ear-like protuberances, hence the Chinese name. Buy large ones that are not too white, as this usually means they have been bleached. Chinese herbal shops often have the best offerings, as they are fresh, heavy for their size, and in large heads, rather than crumbles. Soak the heads in hot water until soft, and then cut away the brownish centers. Then, break the heads into smallish petals.

Jujube jam
Asian pears come in two basic varieties: brown- and yellow-skinned. The brown-skinned ones have a coarser texture and thicker skin, while the yellow ones are more delicate. The type that I have used here is called yali in Chinese, or "duck pear." It has a slightly tart edge and very fine texture. Select pears that are more or less fist sized. They should feel heavy, as this means they are juicy. The stem ought to be plump, as a withered stem means they have been sitting around for a while. Feel them all over, if you can, and discard any that have soft spots. Store them in a cool area.

Toast has never been a big deal in East Asia, so it might come as a bit of a shock to find that jujubes, or Chinese dates, are popular ingredients for jam. But North China and Korea like to mix this jam -- as well as marmalade -- into boiling water to form a fragrant sweet tea, much like the Russians do. In fact, this might be where they got the idea! Jujube jam can be found in larger Chinese markets, as well as Korean stores. A good substitute is apricot or plum jam.

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