Monday, March 5, 2012

Cured meat and "hundred layer" bean curd soup

As the chilly days of spring give way to warmer weather, I am tempted to fit in as many winter dishes here as possible. One of my favorites is a dish I translate as "Shanghai casserole," but which is called yanduxian in Chinese. Many versions exist -- some with things like fresh clams thrown in -- but I've always had a soft spot for the basic one with Chinese ham, the pressed bean curd known as "hundred layers" (baiye), and a rich pork broth humming with more than enough Shaoxing rice wine.

Recently, though, I came across a much simpler version that uses cured meat, baiye, and little more than a rich stock and some rice wine to produce a truly fine soup, almost a Cliff Notes edition of the more labor intensive casserole.

To this I added a generous helping of fresh ginger and green onions to offset the pork, made up a broth out of the bones and scraps from a roasted chicken, threw in a couple of fresh Chinese black mushrooms because I never can have enough of them, and topped it off with a fistful of lively green bok choy to make this a beautiful balanced meal.
Baiye or 百葉

This is super easy to put together, although you have to start at least 2 hours before you serve it to both make the stock and prepare the baiye. Few non-Chinese know about this form of doufu, which consists of thin layers of bean curd pressed together with what looks likes an impressive amount of force. And if the fact that it's called "hundred layers" is not enough to impress you, its other name is qianzhang, or "thousand sheets." (The English names on the packaging will vary wildly, so look for the two characters under the picture on the right.)

You will often find baiye either as a hard block or as prepared, ready-made knots (baiye jie), and it will always comes vacuum packed in plastic bags in the refrigerated section. When you take it out of the package, it will be rather leathery in texture and not very appealing. But it wakes up like a sleeping princess if the right keys are used: boiling water and baking soda.

Even then, you might end up with a bowl of mushy, squashed bean curd if you don't take care. So, to get back to that fairy tale, this too requires adherence to some magic steps that must be followed to the letter.
Plumped up baiye

First, the leaves of the baiye are separated, although if you buy them already soaked and in knots, you can just dump them into the soup later on with little ceremony. Use care when you peel the leaves apart, as they will often stick; a thin-bladed knife can be called upon to urge them apart if necessary. However, if there is some tearing, don't give it much thought, as this won't be noticed once the soup is cooked. 

The baking soda is dissolved in boiling hot water; this is very important. Do not use merely hot water, since the soda will bubble and fizz in boiling water and so dissolve thoroughly. The sheets of baiye are then submerged in the still boiling hot water, where they will stay only until the bean curd turns from tan to white and plumps up a bit. At this point the baiye must be drained and rinsed with cool tap water to stop the chemical reactions from continuing in that bowl. If it is left in the alkaline water, the baiye will just give up and dissolve into gross pillows.

Bubbling baking soda
And that really is it. With the baiye correctly woken up, it just requires a slow simmer in broth to continue its journey toward the table. One really nice thing about cooking baiye in a stock is that it will turn the soup a milky color and make it seem very rich. I like to underscore that with plenty of ginger, green onion, and my beloved Shaoxing rice wine, all of which complement the baiye perfectly. 

The soup should also include a nice bit of oil to add the necessary mouth feel, and my favorite candidates for this are both chicken fat and pork fat. You can, of course, make this pretty close to fat free, but it is so much better with that buttery edge.

Enjoy this now while the cold weather lasts!

Cook the baiye until tender
Cured meat and "hundred layer" bean curd soup
Xianrou baiye tang 鹹肉百葉湯
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main dish

4 sheets (1.5 ounces) baiye, or 8 ounces prepared pressed bean curd knots (baiye jie)
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups boiling filtered water
3 ounces (or so) Hunan style cured meat (see Tips)
4 cups good chicken stock, preferably unsalted
2 large fresh Chinese black mushrooms5 slices fresh ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and tied in knots
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
Sea salt to taste
6 green bok choy

1. Carefully separate the baiye into sheets (or measure out the bean curd knots and skip the rest of this step). Put the baking soda in a medium heatproof work bowl and pour the boiling water over it. Stir to dissolve the baking soda, and then immediately add the baiye. Soak the baiye in the hot water, turning it over gently so that each piece is submerged. After about 10 minutes, as the water starts to cool, the baiye should look white instead of tan and should appear plumper. Rinse the baiye in a colander under running cool tap water. Place the baiye back in the bowl and cover with cool tap water. Let it soak for about 30 minutes to an hour. Drain.
Cured meat, ginger, and onions

2. Rinse the cured meat and pat it dry. Trim off the skin and any large pieces of fat from the cured meat; add them to the stock, if you like, and bring it to a boil so that the extra flavor works its way into the stock. Slice the meat against the grain into thin pieces. Remove and discard the mushroom stems and slice the caps into thin pieces.

3. Remove the skin and pork fat from the stock, and then add the cured meat, mushrooms, ginger, green onions, and rice wine. Bring the stock to a boil over high heat, and then add the drained baiye or bean curd knots. Bring the pot to a boil again and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the soup for around 30 minutes until the stock turns milky and the baiye are soft and tender; don't overcook the soup, as the meat will become tasteless and the baiye too mushy. Taste and adjust the seasoning with the salt. 

4. Remove and discard the ginger and green onions. Bring the pot to a boil again and add the bok choy; cook them for around 5 minutes, or until barely tender. Serve the soup very hot.


Hunan larou
The cured meat will most likely be labeled larou, rather than xianrou, but this is more a matter of local nomenclature than anything worth specially seeking out. Larou literally means meats made during the last lunar month (i.e., the depths of winter), while xianrou means "salted meat," so they pretty much amount to the same thing.  Some of these cured meats are smoked, and that is fine, but I prefer unsmoked meat for this dish, as the smoke can sometimes be a bit overpowering.

Select cured meats that are one solid piece, if at all possible, rather than bits and pieces. You should be able to look inside the plastic bag and see what is in there. The best pieces will be from the ham (or thigh) with a single good layer of fat and skin. If it is a jumble of smaller pieces, these are the leftovers and end pieces, and so might be tough from tendons and connective tissue.

As always, try to find cured meats that were made in the U.S., rather than in China. A good second choice is a Taiwan product, but some reputable American producers seem to be taking over the larou market, at least in California.