Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mustardy cabbage mounds from Beijing

Once in a while you come across a dish that is so different from anything you've ever seen before that it might throw you for a loop. And something like this is even more surprising if it turns out to be really good. Mustardy cabbage mounds (baicai jiemo dun), a traditional Beijing favorite, especially during the cold months, is one such creation.

This is a particularly striking dish, not just visually, but also because of its cool temperature and gentle tartness, which act as a sort of palate cleanser. I recently served this at a dinner alongside some Muslim style lamb, and the vibrant sauce seemed to make the meat even brighter tasting, like an excellent pickle or a really good glass of wine.

Relatively easy to put together, this mainly calls for cutting some long napa cabbage into sections and steaming them with a simple topping of powdered mustard, sugar, and salt. To say that they are steamed, though, really doesn't tell you how utterly cooked these become, for the little "mounds" are steamed mercilessly for four hours until they are as soft as pillows. To keep them from dissolving, the cabbage sections are tied with twine. Then, if you really want to get fancy, you replace the twine with some blanched green onions, which act as pretty ribbons.

This uses a type of Chinese cabbage that is long and thin, not the barrel-shaped heads that are more commonly seen in markets. Each head should be about 16 inches long and around 3 inches wide near the center; whatever the length and diameter, try to select cabbages that are of similar size so that each serving is approximately the same amount.

Veggie bondage
Use only the tender leaves, which means that the bottom half of the cabbages should be cut off if they are at all thick, although you can keep the upper half of the leaves. What I like to do is to first tie the top half of the cabbage with lengths of kitchen twine as shown to the right, and then cut off the bottom half. After removing the thick outer leaves until the more delectable ones appear, I then continue to tie and cut the rest of the cabbage, for a total of 5 or 6 equal sections per head.

Usually served in spring and winter when these cabbages are at their best, this is something that can be made days ahead of a party and stored in the refrigerator until needed, although I would probably wait until the day they are to be served before tying on the green onions in order to keep their vibrant green hue.

One thing I have done which really isn't completely Chinese is to stir some Dijon mustard and rice vinegar into the sauce. I found that the flavors weren't zippy enough for my taste in the original versions I've seen, and the addition of these two ingredients made the flavors sing. But taste the sauce and season it as you see fit.

Ready for steaming
Mustard cabbage mounds 
Baicai jiemo dun 白菜芥末墩  
Serves 10 to 12 as a side dish

2 long, thin heads of napa cabbage (around 3 pounds)
7 tablespoons Colman's dry mustard
8 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, optional
2 tablespoons white rice vinegar, optional
12 or so thin whole green onions

1. Tie the upper half of a head of cabbage with kitchen twine at 2-inch intervals; trim off and remove the very tip, which is too flimsy for this dish. Cut off the bottom half and remove all of the tough leaves; you should be left with a bundle that is about as thick as the top half. Then, tie the bottom half with twine at 2-inch intervals and trim off the tough bottom part.

2. Bring a pot of water to the boil and toss in half the cabbage bundles; blanch then for a minute or so to remove some of the water and strong flavors residing in these leaves. Remove the bundles to a colander set in the sink and run cool water over them. Drain thoroughly.

3. Place the drained bundles cut side up on a large, heatproof plate with a high rim (to hold the sauce that will form during steaming). Toss the powdered mustard with the sugar and salt and sprinkle it evenly over the tops of the bundles. Set the plate in a steamer, cover, and bring the water under the steamer to a full boil. Lower the heat to a strong simmer and steam the cabbage bundles for 4 hours, adding water to the steamer as needed. Remove the plate from the steamer and allow the cabbage to come to room temperature.
Blanching green onions

4. Pour the sauce from the cabbages into a saucepan. Bring the sauce to a boil and simmer until it has reduced thickened slightly. Taste and add the Dijon mustard and vinegar, if desired, and boil it down a bit further so that there are no raw mustard or vinegar flavors. If you are not serving the cabbages that day, pour the sauce over and around the cabbages, cover, and refrigerate. If you are serving them that day, proceed to the next step.

5. If you want to make these a bit fancier, blanch the green onions in boiling water for about a  minute to soften them up; immediately remove them to a bowl of ice water to shock them and stop the cooking. Tie a softened green onion around each cabbage bundle before cutting off the string. When all of the cabbages have been decorated this way, pour the sauce around them and refrigerate until chilled. Serve cold or slightly cold in shallow little bowls with the sauce puddled around and over them.


Select long, thin napa cabbages that do not have large root sections on the bottom; the smaller the diameter of the solid white circle on the bottom, the younger the cabbage is. The big, barrel-shaped napa cabbages will need to have most of their outer leaves removed, if that is the only variety available.

Feel the cabbages to ensure that they are tightly formed; loose leaves will tend to lose their shape during the steaming.

Soft as silk
Whenever you buy cabbages toward the end of the season, try to peek into the top to see whether a flower stalk is forming, as these are tough and will have to be removed.

Use fresh powdered mustard, if at all possible, as it loses its strength and taste after a while. Take a little taste, if you are not sure. Colman's remains my perennial favorite.

Dijon mustard works wonderfully here, as does the white rice vinegar. Ballpark style mustard would be too sharp, and deli mustard might be too sweet or grainy, but use your own judgment. Darker vinegar tends to make this dish muddy looking, so use as light a vinegar as possible; Marukan makes a good light-colored rice vinegar. (Sushi vinegar is a totally different product, as it has sugar and salt added, and so would overpower this dish.)

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